Together again: Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart, creator of the divine blog, Through the French Eye of Design, and I shall embark upon our weekly transatlantic conversation. We are always in parallel. She lives outside New York; I live outside Paris.
Every Monday we select a subject to examine in our adopted lands which, because of our official status as les etrangéres, we may find funny, infuriating or frustrating. Then we share our experiences with you — the good, the bad and the unfortunate — as we daily cope with the cultural challenges of living on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
This week we have chosen dressing for success, i.e. what do women wear to work on each side of the ocean. It is sort of the third part of our series debuting with women in politics, followed by TV anchorwomen.
For some reason I feel out of my depth in this exchange. I have always worked in a world where the more creatively — eccentrically — dressed one was, the more you were appreciated and admired. If your facade had people talking about you, it often resulted in stardom and major promotions in the fun-filled world of fashion.
Of course I have and have had banker, lawyer, business and foundation executive friends who live on the serious side of the apparel spectrum. Many reached the levels where they could be somewhat risky in their wardrobe choices, but that usually simply translated into more expensive as opposed to wacky. Wacky is definitely out of the question at a board meeting or in front of a jury, at least in the United States.
My banking friends turned to Chanel in its most conservative renditions, Armani — a perfect dress for success choice once one has the corner office and the wherewithal to go with it — Dana Buchman and Jil Sander (when she was doing her collection) among others.
Please forgive me, Jeanne-Aelia, I’m at a bit of a loss on this one. Let me make a few random observations and then polish off with pictures I’ve studiously culled from the 2009 “Forbes” magazine most powerful women in the world issue and various other similar articles in French and U.S. publications. (I hope these women still hold these posts today. . .)
This is how I tried to sort out my conundrum:
1.) All politicians (and there were many), women in entertainment — they can wear pretty much whatever they choose — and those in “creative” industries, i.e. advertising and fashion were eliminated from my list.
FYI German chancellor Angela Merkel is considered the most powerful woman in the world according to “Forbes.”
2.) No where does a French magazine ever, ever tell women how to dress for work.
3.) American magazines seem to feel women need an article on the subject at least once a year with short reminders thrown in every month or so.
4.) Casual Fridays — if they still exist — seem to cause great angst for Americans and thus require further editorial attention.
5.) As far as I know, there is no equivalent casual dressing day in France.
6.) Jewelry, shoes and bags become progressively more expensive and status worthy as a woman scales the corporate ladder.
7.) I’m convinced today’s subject points up precise cultural differences between the French and Americans, begging the question: Must a woman be wary of seeming too feminine?
8.) I’ve devised a formula to define the two approaches to dressing in conservative industries — the four S’s. . .
- French: Sophisticated, Sexy (a soupçon, nothing radical), Stylish, Smart.
- American: Strict, Sober, Safe/Sensible, Structured.
Many of you may turn to television for guidelines on dressing. Unfortunately I don’t see most of the appropriately translatable American programs and watch almost no French TV, although to my knowledge there are no French businesswomen in sitcoms and when a lawyer is pleading a case she is wearing a long black robe with a pleated white jabot thingie, so underneath she could be wearing jeans for all I know.
My favorite TV lawyer of all time is Candice Bergen from “Boston Legal.” You will note she is wearing “the uniform” if you will, but what has she done that changes everything? She turned up her collar. Maybe it’s because she was married so many years to a Frenchman. Even the addition of the cravat looks feminine.(Confession: I love Candice Bergen.)
Apart from the creative fields and the Sarkozy government where one finds powerful and chic women, there are few top executive women in France (as far as I know, please correct me if I’m mistaken). The two pictured here: Anne Lauvergeon, Chief Executive of Areva (#9 on the Forbes list) and Clara Gaymard, President of General Electric, are prime examples of how French women are not afraid to look feminine. And clearly both like fashion. Don’t you just love Madame Lauvergeon’s leather skirt? It’s probably YSL.
The women executives pictured above all work for North American companies, from the top:
1.) Shelia Bair, Chairman, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.2.) Ann Livermore, Executive Vice-President, Hewlett Packard.3.) Indra Nooyi, CEO, Pepsi U.S.A.4.) Mary Sammons, CEO, Rite Aid.5.) Ellen Kullman, CEO, Dupont U.S.A.6.) Anne Mulcahy, Chairman, Xerox.7.) Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox.8.) Mary Schapiro, Chairman, Securities and Exchange Commission.9.) Brenda Barnes, CEO, Sara Lee Corp.