How to be Parisienne: The signature item

Anna Hollingsworth 9 May 2016

Like the children’s book, the wardrobe is the key. The portal to a new world. Before moving any further with my mission to become a true Parisienne I must perform a check-up. Or perhaps an autopsy.

The understated, light, elegant collection of wrinkle-free items, presenting a consistent and subtle style, is decidedly absent. I am showered with frumpy jumpers and colourful leggings as I open my disorderly cupboards. They topple onto my head, animating the desperation that prevents them from being chic.

However, fortunately for my student loan it’s not imperative that I rush to buy a whole new wardrobe. At least not yet. According to my handbook, what is most important is to have that one piece you wear repeatedly, that looks incredible on you and gives you confidence. A wearable statement of intent. The guide details further: it is not too flashy, but stands out. It is what you wear to feel strong. It’s ‘timeless.’

This elusive ‘signature item’ is my first target.

A splash of cold water wakens my face. The mutterings of reporters on the French radio fill the background. Blue jeans and a blue vest top for this sizzling Parisian day. Soft, cream cardigan and my favourite black boots. The outfit mathematics of balancing the heat with the shops I plan to visit is dizzying. What clothes to buy clothes in is a neurotic’s stressful enigma. Simple seems safe. I wash my hair, a firm believer that you can’t tell whether an outfit looks good if your hair isn’t clean. Venturing out into the spring sunshine with my damp locks clinging to my neck is nice. I’m wearing dangly earrings as I like the way they tickle my ears and brush against my neck. Feeling fresh and determined, I glance at my list of vintage clothes shops. I decided that my signature item couldn’t be purchased on the high street, that if it was going to be dear to me, and unique, it would have to be second-hand. Our stories aren’t beginning; they’re just crossing paths.

I walk into my first Parisian vintage clothes shop and am a convert. Bring me back in time. If not, bring me vintage. Can I have thirty signature items? I wander around in awe. The magic of this cave is mesmerising. Hats hang from hooks, leather jackets line walls, scarves and bags and boots from decades past litter shelves and boxes. A section for dungarees. An aisle for 70s’ summer dresses. The tips of my fingers brush along the rows of miniskirts and denim shirts.

I find it hidden away amongst a trove of dresses: a little green vintage. Emerald, a mild shimmer, subtly patterned. It’s gorgeous. I’ve always wanted this dress. Trying it on confirms my instinct. It clutches at the bodice but still has those little thin straps that are so adorable; flows out at the waist, gracefully, just enough to give shape. I can see the parties, jazz nights, essay crises when I get dressed up just to pull my way through. Hair up, heels on, red lipstick. This dress is it.

Excited to make it mine, I look in my purse. Not much to look at. A gulp at my realisation: in order to take the dress I need money. In order to get money I have to leave the dress. I consider asking the shop assistant to hold it but the queue is long and I’m shy. The alternative? Under what I can only imagine was the influence of the fumes from the vintage clothing I wait until no other customer is standing near the rail of dresses, then squeeze mine back in, shoving its neighbours into close quarters so as to thoroughly bury it. Then I run. Down the street, around the corner, across the road towards the ATM I passed on the way. I ponder how ridiculous this is. I’m proud of not having completely lost touch with reality but am simultaneously getting annoyed at children, who seem to multiply when you’re in a rush. After breathing deeply through the lady ahead of me’s idle sojourn at the machine, I dash back, stopping suddenly at the shop front and attempting a casual entrance. To no avail; the shop assistant looks at me, the girl who has just spent over an hour here and to whom he bid farewell a mere five minutes ago, and, smirking, calls ‘Bonjour.’ I hurry over to the rail, I hold my breath and…. It’s still there. The only thing that has been taken is my self-respect.

As I lounge in my vintage dress writing this, I contemplate my choice. My guide lists the many ideal points of the signature item but it summarises what is at its heart thus: ‘The signature item is an attitude.” It is meant to be from you, for you. Not for anyone else. It should make you feel ‘invincible.’ Its only justification? The manual is clear: "it makes me happy." My old-fashioned, twinkling, probably kind of ridiculous dress makes me happy. It is the perfect signature item not because it fits any style guides or ticks any boxes but because I bought it for me and when I wear it I feel fabulous. What could be more stylish than that?