French Women Don't Wear Shorts

Michelle Obama seems acutely aware of the image she projects with her clothes. It was 104 degrees at the Grand Canyon, and maybe she just wanted to be comfortable.
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For many Parisians who saw pictures of Michelle Obama stepping off Air Force One last week in a pair of green cotton shorts, the first thought that came to mind was: Carla Bruni would never wear that.

Even on a burning August day, the French First Lady wouldn't be caught dead in something as "unchic as shorts. She wouldn't want to waste a moment of her life being frumpy," says Elisabeth Fourmont, a Paris-based fashion writer.

Adds Coline Choay, a representative for the French designer Altuzarra, "it would be a big non-non."

French women are obsessed with looking sexy and feminine -- it's inscribed in their DNA and probably also somewhere in the Napoleonic Code -- and shorts, especially the boxy, mid-thigh kind Mrs. Obama sported for a visit to the Grand Canyon, don't have much allure.

For the French, perhaps the biggest problem with "les shorts" is their American origin. Short pants, worn by young boys throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, were adopted by American sportswear designers in the 1940s and became a popular warm weather look for U.S. women and men.

That's reason enough for the French to disdain them. Our Gaulic frenemies believe they are superior to us Americans in all things sartorial (not to mention all things culinary, oenophilic and diplomatic), and they've got a point.

In France, clothes are never just clothes. They're a social force. Behind Paris fashion is a way of life, bolstered by a tradition of literature and art. In the paintings of David and Renoir, Degas and Vuillard, in the novels of Balzac and Proust, clothes are clues to character and social currents. In a deep way fashion is part of the civilization of France.

No wonder that for the past 300 years the French have been so reluctant to concede even a soupçon of style authority to America. Still, the French remain fascinated by us and are unable to resist the most potent elements of U.S. pop culture.

Blue jeans, which started on our side of the Atlantic, have become a staple of the chic Parisian's casual wardrobe. This summer, one of the biggest fashion trends among Parisian girls has been blue jean short shorts. "It's very Versailles," meaning it's the height of chic, notes Alexandra Schmitt, a fashion and beauty marketing executive in Paris. Les desmoiselles, though, have made the style their own -- pairing their shorts with sexy fitted jackets and little suede booties with kitten heels, and, on cooler days, tights.

Similarly, a popular look among the younger attendees at last winter's Paris Fashion Week was leather short shorts and thigh high boots. Like this summer's blue jean shorts, it was a very pulled together look -- "the new mini," as Choay notes.

These styles are not meant to be comfortable, which to Americans is the whole point of shorts. "I hear the comfort excuse all the time from American" women sagging in their shapeless Bermudas, says Fourmont. "And I don't buy it. Not a lot of thought has gone into it. You can be just as comfortable in a sundress."

Part of the problem, Fourmont believes, is that American women are too influenced by what their daughters wear. "They like to go shopping with their kids. But just because the moms can fit into a pair of Abercrombie shorts, doesn't mean that it's appropriate for them."

What is appropriate, of course, is at the heart of the uproar last week over Michelle Obama's shorts. The First Lady has been bending and breaking the rules over what is correct attire for her position since the day her husband took office.

From the baring of her well-toned arms at official functions and her favoring of young, immigrant designers over the big guns of U.S. fashion, to her sporting a cardigan to meet Britain's Queen Elizabeth, Mrs. Obama has shown a forceful fashion independence.

She also seems acutely aware of the image she projects with her clothes. For example, when she donned a humble J. Crew outfit at the start of the G20 Summit in Europe last spring, it signaled her sympathy with the world's economic woes.

So, what was she saying by dressing like her daughters in shorts and sneakers as she disembarked from Air Force One? That she's an unpretentious mom? That she's got more important things to think about than clothes?

It was 104 degrees at the Grand Canyon, and maybe she just wanted to be comfortable. Perhaps she forgot for a while that a posse of photographers would be lying in wait, as they always are wherever she goes, to capture her shorts on film. Perhaps for one plane ride, she had a rare moment of peace.

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