With the recent change of season, I have been struck by the stunning, fearless style of Parisian grannies, or les mamies.
Unlike the current coastal grandmother trend in the United States, with flowy off-white linen outfits and straw hats, harvesting tomatoes from your own garden like Meryl Streep in the film “It’s Complicated,” les mamies are hitting it hard. They are not going gentle into that good night. They are not aging gracefully, whatever that is.
They are a riot of color.
I’ve seen head-to-toe red, including accompanying shopping cart. I’ve seen mauve pants with a mauve trench coat and mauve sneakers. Where do you get a mauve trench coat, anyway? One mamie had blue jeans, blue flats, a blue bomber jacket, blue tote bag, and a blue scarf that drifted out behind her even though there was no wind. A mamie at the pool had an orange sweater and orange patterned scarf worn as a headband, then when she got in the pool she had on a tasteful orange maillot de bain. She kept the headscarf on, bobbing coolly around in the deep end.
They even coordinate their hair. Gray heads complement gray jeans and soft gray cashmere sweaters. Dyed black hair reigns over black trousers and black leather jackets, with a black cross-body bag of anonymous but certain pedigree. My favorite was the woman at the Musee d’Art Moderne with gold Birkenstocks, purple hair, a purple blouse, and gold and purple plaid pants. Magnifique.
French mamies show us how to to flaunt it
Shhhh, here’s a secret: they look good at every level. In the locker room at the gym, they have the most beautiful matching bra and panty sets—all colors, lacy, with superb fit and support. I am in awe.
These mamies sometimes march along with a baguette and a bottle of wine sticking out of their shopping bags. Some are sitting in cafés, like my neighbor, who parks herself and her two little dogs at the corner café terrace and reigns supreme for two hours every morning, greeting doggo passers-by and gossiping with other patrons.
Some lounge in cafés with their friend for an apéro, sipping wine and smoking and ignoring the tiny bowl of potato chips the server left for them. You’ll see others sitting alone at lunchtime, with a tower of oysters on ice and a pichet of white wine, wearing pumps, pearls, and a Chanel suit that isn’t technically vintage because she bought it in 1974 and has worn it ever since, never having gained weight.
French mamies color my world
When does that colorful attire start? With retirement? With the first grandchild? Most middle aged Parisiennes on the street wear black or navy, always chic, but never daring. My friend Carla wore an orange skirt to work and was mercilessly teased for wearing “old lady fashion.”
I, at the age of 56, can still pass for middle-aged. For decades, I dressed like the piano teacher I was, in blouses and dress slacks so that I could sit on the floor with my preschoolers and heels so I would be taller than my high school students. I endeavored to make my outfits say businesswoman, not kookie wild-haired dangly-earring hot mess piano teacher.
Now, though, as a writer I have no restrictions on my wardrobe. I sit at my computer, or skulk in cafés, or am a flaneuse in Paris. I guess my style has improved in the five years I’ve lived in Paris, because I no longer get judgy looks and the pfffft sound from women on the street. (Yes, it’s a harsh city.) Shop clerks and waiters have stopped taking one sweeping glance at me and launching into heavily French-accented English, reminding me that I am a foreigner. Department store sales ladies now offer to start a fitting room for me, instead of ignoring me and rolling their eyes. I told you it was a harsh city.
What has Paris fashion taught me?
I don’t think I’m cut out for the coastal grandmother trend. As much as I like walking on the beach and sipping Chardonnay, linen always looks wrinkled on me and I’d just spill something on all those off-white blouses. And, stunning as they are, I don’t think I’m ready for mamie-style either—I’m not that brave and it’s too close to that “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple” poem.
Somewhere between the two is me, colorful enough, mid-way between tailored and flowy, Stevie Nicks on a slow day, or Emma Thompson with jewelry and booties.
What have I learned from living in Paris? It doesn’t matter what your style is, you have to know yourself, be confident in that knowledge, and dress intentionally. The French don’t ask you to look like them, they demand that you present the boldest version of yourself.
So, tits up! Whatever you’re doing, embrace it.