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The Vintage Years: Do French women grow old in style?

We hear all too often about how French women keep it chic, but how do Les Femme Invisibles handle fashion?
Listen very carefully. I will say this only once: I've been undercover in France for a week. Well, not really undercover, more on holiday, but I did use the opportunity to study the legendary chic of French women - particularly the older ones. I'm convinced that most fashion writers do their observing from some elegant little pavement café in St Germain des Pres, or the bar at Hotel Meurice, where it's all Parisian and apparently effortless. It's so much more interesting to observe La Femme Invisible off-duty in a quiet seaside town in south west France. Given half a chance I'll happily revert to a cut-down T-shirt, ripped jeans, battered Birkenstocks and no makeup, but I wouldn't have thought my particular brand of off-duty 'vagrant chic' would cut the moutarde on the Ile de Ré. I'll come clean and admit that this was my third visit to Ré – I love the place and being so familiar with the geography means I know the best times and places for a stake-out...
Exhibit One: Breakfast. One of my favourite holiday games is Guess the Nationality but it's far too easy at breakfast in a small hotel. Neutral colours and ditsy florals, shorts or a shift dress, espadrilles, deck shoes or pumps, scarf, minimal jewellery and even honey-coloured tan = French. Bright colours and busy patterns, heels, flip-flops, Birkenstocks/Fitflops, waterfall front cardigan, 'fun' earrings; sunburn, prickly heat and peeling shoulders = not French.
Exhibit Two: The market. Under no circumstances may you take a bumbag, money belt or handbag – you must carry a respectably proportioned and serviceable purse (the larger the purse the higher the status). L'Homme Invisible must carry a wallet and not produce handfuls of change, a hanky and 3 Werther's wrappers from his pocket. Plastic carrier bags must be swiftly concealed in a proper shopping basket and a small dog is almost compulsory. Do balance a freshly caught crab on top of your shopping if you can.
Exhibit Three: The beach. Absolutely no flesh on display until you are approaching the horizontal position approved for sunbathing. I found this fascinating. Les Femmes Invisibles approach the beach with everything planned as though for a military operation, particularly if there are grandchildren in tow. An over-sized T-shirt is essential to accomplish the 'vertical to horizontal' manoeuvre with grace and also for the reverse procedure. They all carry the equivalent of a small Mary Poppins' Gladstone bag containing everything from a fishing net to sun cream and a kite. Never forget your oyster knife – the damn things are everywhere.
Exhibit Four: The harbour-side restaurant. See Exhibit One, with the possible addition of a discreet wedge.
From this you might read that La Femme Invisible is chic at all times, which is one way of looking at it. They also play it very safe – too safe, I would venture to say. There's a formula and it's rigorously applied and there is also clearly a point at which shorts are abandoned in favour of fitted Capri pants, but like the switch from bonjour to bonsoir it's a moot point when that actually occurs. I think it's down to personal judgement and the condition of one's knees/thighs. The best thing I saw was our teensy lady-who-does-everything tying up hollyhocks in the pouring rain (yes it did rain) in a T-shirt and jeans with a gabardine deerstalker crammed on her head. Somehow this ridiculous piece of headgear looked as fabulous as the Faubourg St Honoré. And that, I am convinced, is the simple answer to the enigma of La Femme Invisible: attitude, and an ability to decline the dessert menu. Personally I thought it all worked best when there was something unexpected thrown in, like the deerstalker, but there's no denying that they know when to stop seasoning the dish. Less is definitely more. Which rather neatly brings me back to my packing for this trip - possibly the worst I've ever accomplished. I wore a fraction of what I took and lost my favourite scarf. The favourite scarf I bought four years ago for three euros on the Ile de Ré.

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