Two nights ago, I created a new Whatsapp group, jokingly called Eilidh in Paris. I added eight of my closest friends and typed “ahead of our trip, let’s talk fashion,” pinging off a shot of the black suede Jimmy Choos I had just purchased at a sample sale in London. We had all booked Eurostars and rooms at the Paris Hoxton to celebrate my 30th birthday in early January – a decade on from the two years I spent in France as a young adult.
The group name was a riff on Emily in Paris, a show that is so bad it’s good, or so good it’s bad. But the truth is, during my time in France, I was a bit of an Emily. Not because I hooked up with my friend’s boyfriend. Neither because I owned rails of Chanel and Louis Vuitton. But because I stuck out like a sore thumb.
There is a lot I don’t like about Emily – but I have to admit that I feel for her. Not only did nobody “get” my style in France, they also felt compelled to tell me in no uncertain terms. I am too familiar with the awkward pang Emily will have felt when she asked her Parisian boss Sylvie what she should wear to an event, which earned the impressively blunt response: “Not that.”
I learned that experimentation is a simple faux pas. As a 19 and 20-year-old, still trying to figure out my style – inspired by Chanel, but with the budget of Zara – I frequently went wrong. Parisians, on the other hand, live by style codes that keep them on track. My friend, Agathe, a teacher who lives in the 5th arrondissement, was brought up on these rules. “My mum taught me never to wear more than three colours. Parisians wear black a lot, because it’s slimming,” she told me over the phone. “I normally only wear black and blue. White sometimes and maybe camel. I have just come out of a meeting and everyone else was wearing black too.”
Eilidh in Paris.
So it didn’t help that, like Emily, I enjoyed yellow. Walking down the street carrying the new, luminous yellow tote bag I was delighted with, I heard two girls talking loudly and scathingly behind me. “L’horreur. It’s blinding.” That I looked resolutely British – or other – meant people assumed I didn’t speak the language and felt they could freely express their distaste out loud at short range. But by then I was near fluent, and took great pleasure in their shock when I turned around and entered their debate. “It’s easy to tell who isn’t French, simply by the way they dress,” Agathe confirms.
The issue of make-up, too, was a dead giveaway. “Once my boyfriend told me that I wear make-up like an English girl,” says Agathe. “It traumatised me and now I’m really careful to look like I haven’t got any make-up on.”
I tried polka dots (a season one and two fixture on Emily in Paris) – but they didn’t work. The brown-and-white polka dot dress I wore as a waitress, one that reminded me of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, so deeply offended the po-faced teenage daughter of the boss that she screamed. She trotted down the stairs, gasped wide eyed at the sight of me and said, with an indignant shriek, “mais c’est moche!” “Good morning to you, too,” I replied, as blindsided as Emily was when Pierre Cadeau growled “ringarde!” in the company of her colleagues.
I never wore a beret, but when I accidentally left my fedora on a train, a co-worker said “thank god”. When I wore a boho headpiece I had found in Notting Hill market a friend said, kindly, “In Paris, we always remove one thing before we go out. Less is more,” and lifted it from my head. At least Emily doesn’t have to worry about bodycon, the ultimate trend among my peers a decade ago. I am still haunted by my first ever photos taken in Paris, in front of the Chanel boutique on Rue Cambon, wearing a grey bodycon skirt, purple cardigan, black polo neck and pink scarf. How many rules can a girl break?
Agathe in Paris.
There was the boyfriend who looked at me like I was insane when I pulled my light blue North Face jacket on to step out into the biting January cold, the streets of Paris glittering with frost. “Mais non,” he groaned, and refused to leave the hotel. The older the person, the more liberally they criticised. At a dinner with family friends, I struggled to finish the plate I’d been served, piled high with nothing but plain green beans. Pierre*, the septuagenarian head of the table, waited until everyone had gone quiet to point at me and say, “I thought anorexics were supposed to be skinny.”
But don’t mistake clash for coldness. Once I began to gain the trust of the young French women around me (which, as a side note to Emily, was earned with genuine respect for their language) they started to become inquisitive. One friend asked me to do her hair; another flicked through the hangers in my wardrobe ogling at the sequins. We dressed up in the safety of my apartment, dancing to Madonna and living our own movie montage. In turn, I took notes from them and our styles started to blend. What first felt like rejection became a cultural exchange.
“When British girls go out, they wear amazing clothes,” says Agathe, when I ask her if she was ever envious. “We never do that – it’s just too much. But living in England for two years was a liberation. I could wear what I wanted and be who I wanted. I tried fake tan and eyelashes, which I would never do here; even at parties you need to look casual.”
So while Emily heads into season two, in which the actor Lily Collins claims she begins to evolve, I am en route for my own redemption – or at least, I was. In the years since my French life, my budget has grown and my sense of style has solidified. I have become a master at acquiring designer vintage on eBay. Ahead of the Paris trip, aside from the black Choos, I snagged a beautifully cut black Mugler jacket, a knitted black Miu Miu dress, a black Moschino blazer and a black Saint Laurent skirt. Spot the theme? For balance, I also acquired a pair of oversized pink Fendi sunglasses.
Emily in Paris. STÉPHANIE BRANCHU/NETFLIX
I felt a rush as I laid it all out. The final addition, the Saint Laurent skirt, arrived yesterday. It was the last piece of my Parisian puzzle. I ripped open the package, wiggled into the skirt and ping! one of the buttons flew off, dinging the mirror. “Unbelievable,” I thought, as I walked, trapped penguin-like in the skirt, to my phone, which lit up with a notification: France has imposed a strict ban on all non-essential travellers arriving from the United Kingdom.
Somewhere across the channel those chic Parisians had the last laugh. While the January celebrations are on the rocks, at least I’ll have Emily In Paris to binge in the meantime.