If there is one thing I can’t resist, it’s French.
When I was about nine or ten, I had my first brush with the language. I was reading Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. The heroine, an orphaned schoolgirl who wrote letters to her anonymous benefactor, had begun to take a French class at university. In the spirit of things, she signed off a dispatch with the sentence, “Je vous aime beaucoup!”
I had no idea what she was talking about, but the prettiness of the words piqued my curiosity. So I plucked myself from my little reading nook, trotted to my parents’ bedroom, and with complete confidence in my mother’s omniscient powers, I pointed to the page and asked, “What does this mean?”
Unbeknownst to my young self, my mother had taken 12 units of French in UP Diliman. “It means, ‘I love you very much,’” she replied distractedly, puttering about her dresser. A moment later she shot a quizzical look in my prepubescent direction. “What in the world are you reading?”
From that point on, I was fascinated by everything French. Later, I would fuel the obsession with movies like Amelie, La Vie en Rose, Coco avant Chanel, A Very Long Engagement, and Paris, je t’aime. I’d also go on to watch every Audrey Hepburn film set in Paris—my love for both the actress and the city flourishing simultaneously.
But as I was unaware of foreign films as a child, I turned my attention to an easier recourse: French names. I was enthralled by them; I vowed to christen my future, unborn daughter Francoise, after Leonardo DiCaprio’s love interest in The Beach. Mom said that schoolteachers and nannies would murder the moniker (“Nasaan si Frankoys?”). I paid her no mind.
Then, in high school, when my interest in style really began, and I toyed with the idea of becoming a designer, I learned how much the world of fashion was influenced by the French. The big names: Chanel, Dior, Givenchy, Lanvin. The fabrics: tulle, voile, brocade, charmeuse. The embellishments: paillettes, rosettes, appliqués. Even the choice of model: ingénue or femme fatale?
But it wasn’t until I studied French in college that I truly appreciated the intricacies of the language. First, the vowels, all disguised as one another—E became “uh,” I became “ee.” Then, the consonants—soft, elusive things that danced on my tongue like different flavors. The luscious J. The rolling double L. The vanishing S. And, above all, the tricky, throaty R.
When I finally went to Paris with my friend Nadine, I was mesmerized—not only by the Eiffel, the Louvre, and the general splendor, but also by the simple reality of French people speaking French. The locals carried on in this machine gun-quick, cashmere-soft, perpetual murmur—difficult for my limited conversational skills to decipher, but delightful nonetheless (plus, I had Nadine to translate).
It’s been over two years since I’ve been to France, and even longer since I’ve taken a French lesson—but what I’ve learned is this: if you love it, you never really lose it. It especially comes in handy now that I work in fashion journalism, where Frenchisms are used regularly as a sign of industry know-how.
Still, when context clues do not suffice, I’ve gotten my fair share of help from Google Translate. Each time, I’m pleasantly surprised at how an intricate French word or phrase amounts to something easy in English. It’s like peeling back layers of decadent wrapping paper to find an unexpected present, perfect in its simplicity.
Below, I’ve compiled 20 French fashion terms that I’ve come across over the years—some of which I’m sure are familiar to you; others, not so much. Happy learning, and bonne chance!
(Photo from Funny Face courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Edited by Stephanie Castillo.)
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