Why Aren't Americans Sophisticated?

French women are more restrained -- tasteful -- in their fashion, we are told. But, America is a country of commercial beauty -- nipping and tucking and makeover shows with product placements galore.
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I was delighted to see a front page article in the New York Observer this week about Carla Bruni. You remember -- the statue-esque, born-rich, singing, modeling, former-rock-star-bedding, new wife of potty-mouthed divorcee French President Nicholas Sarkozy. She's like a new Jackie O.!, the article trilled. Or maybe a Lady Di! I'd prefer if she were just Carla Bruni -- the "yeah, so what if I modeled nude and now I'm the First Lady of France?" Carla Bruni. Her life story -- the tire fortune! the singing career! the polyandry! -- is intoxicating. Some of us American women can't get enough of articles about her.

Carla has a lovely face, to be sure, but most delicious about her is a sense of style unlike anything American women are accustomed to from our celebrities. Except for when Carla is not wearing anything at all (and not wearing it quite well), she's always so tastefully covered up, yet very, very sexy. Perhaps this is my bias as a brunette, but she wears grey, black and navy blue like they were the three most evocative colors in the rainbow. Naked pics aside, Carla does not show a lot of leg, or a lot of arm, or a lot of tummy in some desperate attempt to show us she's a woman. Even the way she posed nude was positively aristocratic.

As Observer writer Hillary Frey put it:

"...while we were distracted by our own former first lady's vigorous lunge for a return to the White House, Ms. Bruni stealthily installed herself as the most compelling, glamorous and refreshingly bold first lady in many a year. She's let us know she looks great naked and looks great in clothes. She's stayed young without chasing youth; she's stayed sexy without shedding her dignity or her position of power. And that's what many women, particularly New York women, want."

French women are more restrained -- some might say tasteful -- in their fashion, we are told. (Even though the French apparently think President Sarkozy is flashy in a nouveau riche kind of way and denigratingly refer to him as "President Bling Bling.") French women supposedly own fewer, more expensive articles of clothing, wear less makeup, and sometimes do not brush or style their (shall we assume sex-tousled?) hair, let alone blow dry it. This French/American divide has launched a thousand women's magazine articles and made the Kate Hudson movie Le Divorce one of my favorite guilty pleasures. As for American women in public life? I think of "sophistication" and I think of the women who we are force-fed to believe are the tastemakers of grace and style -- Sofia Coppola, Chloe Sevigny and the like. But are they really that graceful, alluring, sexy and interesting? Maybe Natalie Portman is sophisticated. And Brit actress Rachel Weisz. The character of Charlotte on Sex & the City? Halle Berry? Gossip Girl characters Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf are pretty sophisticated on the show, but that show's so sudsy. Cate Blanchett. Brooke Shields has something regal about her. In any case, in a sea of 600 channels and movie premieres left and right, there's so few of these women.

(I purposefully leave our female politicians and their matchy-matchy pants suits out of this because I'd prefer to focus my criticism on their policies. And I couldn't care less that Bruni's the French First Lady -- as most people who care about such things know, she was famous first for being a supermodel and talented singer. I've owned an iTunes playlist of her songs sung in French for two years or so after falling for her voice played in an Anthropologie. So let's just do ourselves a favor and ignore the utterly irrelevant style choices of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and the like.)

America is a country of commercial beauty -- nipping and tucking and makeover shows with product placements galore. So much effort -- and it's going to cost you. We know all about the celebrity stylist who launched the hobo-bag-and-leggings trends, Rachel Zoe -- and who does she bring to mind? Lindsay Lohan, who herself brings to mind that dyed-to-death hair, boozy nights being chased by the paparazzi with tasteless women like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, and intriguing-yet-awkward-considering-her-pushy-stage-parents- and-the-rehab-stuff nude photo shoots with New York magazine. For the most part, the oft-photographed American women often look done up for the senior prom -- so overly made up, so blow-dried, so toned, so stylist-picked-out-and-matched. So airbrushed. So American.

A few years ago, my older sister, Joanna, and I heard Cosmopolitan editor-in-chief Kate White (eternally clad in leopard-print in my mind, as per her editor's letter photo) speak at the New Haven Public Library. It has always stuck in my mind that White referred to Cosmo as being about "big hair and big boobs," which, of course, is why the magazine is fun in a leaf-through-while-I-get-a-pedicure kind of way. And while I love the mission of the "Cosmo girl" -- liberated sexually and whatnot -- I think American fashion can do with There is something about young American fashion -- the "before" part of the cable-TV before-and-after shows -- that's so big hair, so big boob-ed, so unrestrained, so potbellied, so droopy. You know what I am talking about. Buddha bellies spilling over blue jeans, flabby arms, breasts revealing much too much under frilly little polyester club-wear tank tops. And then there's our tacky makeup epidemic: I've often remarked that women who aren't from New York stand out by how their makeup looks so obvious.

But I'm being snotty -- honestly, are women in New York City, myself included, even that sophisticated? I do see model-y types around Union Square who have sophisticated taste, as well as occasional women in wealthy enclaves like the Upper West Side and West Village, but the reigning fashion now for women my age (20s) is rather ugly. I've been wearing leggings for two years now and I'm tired of wearing them, but moreso, I'm tired of looking at other women wear them. Trendy hipster fashion a la Misshapes seldom does anything for women; furthermore, many of the coats, bags, dresses and shoes could be bought at estate sales for much less money, anyway. None of the regular on-the-street fashions are what I'd call chic or sophisticated.

With my closet full of oddly-shaped cotton and polyester pieces, whose Forever 21 tags fall off upon the third wash, I am guilty as any woman. Now, I have an embarrassing confession to make: I have a shelf-full of books about fashion and style.

I've got What Would Jackie Do?, The Fabulous Girl's Guide to Decorum, The Bombshell Manual of Style, the novel Elegance, which I read at least once a year, and A Guide to Elegance, upon which the novel is based. And I've got the big Sex & the City coffee table book, with pages and pages devoted to Patricia Field's styling of the actresses. (All right, so that's about a tenth of a shelf but I'm self-conscious about owning so many un-serious books.) "Style porn," I suppose you could call it, for those of us without the Food Network and a lack of interest in home decorating. You've seen these types of books on display at Borders or Barnes & Noble -- usually softcover with a creamy beige or robin's egg blue background, a lithe woman, or the outline of a lithe woman, with her high heels and her bag and maybe a latte or a hairbrush. They're usually not so much exclusively style books as guides-to-life, mostly with tips on men but some with tips on careers and children.

And what do these books recommend? Again and again and again they advise -- these books just rewrite each other, really -- to buy less junk and acquire more timeless pieces. Little black dresses, heels that won't erode, bags that won't look ratty in six months. Throw away glittery makeup, for you are not in ninth grade anymore! Edit your closet!" they say. Chuck things in the trash! These style books encourage just as much a lack of imagination as the current trends do -- but it's not dullness they advise, it's sophistication.

But is America simply too capitalist to be sophisticated? Or too superficial? Are we too dependent on mass-market throwaway fashion? And can we bear to re-define sexy as discreetly-but-saucily buttoned up? Are we incapable of appreciating good fit and coloring, rather than trendiness based on the women we observe in those magazines we look at while our nails dry? Can American women really kick ourselves of this nasty consumer habit -- disposing our disposable incomes on trendy pieces from the mall that fall apart in the washing machine?

But then again, who can really afford a closet full of wrap-dresses or a smartly-tailored peacoat a la Carla, which was likely paid for by her family's millions? America, to be sure, runs on "affordable luxuries." If American women weren't so senior prom, so unravels-in-the-wash, so trendy, would the economy just collapse? (Or dent, at least?)

I don't know. I don't care. There's a war going on in Iraq. And if John McCain is elected president I can kiss my right to choose goodbye, as this whole country is going down the toilet.

But in the mean time...sigh....I have some laundry to do.