French Fashion Boot Camp

She stood in front of us, scanning the room…and she didn’t seem to like what she saw. We were 15 new recruits to France’s largest airline. An airline that brands itself on the best France had to offer: style, class, sophistication. And it was her job to whip us into shape.

We were issued our uniforms created by a top French designer during our first week of training. So there we sat, as stiff as our new white satin collars,

bracing ourselves to be broken down by this Parisienne in her Channel suit.

She set her designer leather handbag down, took off her silk scarf and tied it to the handles, crossed her arms and sighed.

She started in first on the uniform itself. Or actually, on the colleague who had not pressed his shirt that morning. She ridiculed him in such a way that in the 4 years I wore that navy blue dress, I religiously ironed it the night before being on duty.

She then looked out of the corner of her eye and mention that slips were “Provençale” … Loose translation… Only unsophisticated peasants from the countryside wear slips under their skirts… As discreetly as I could I tried to hitch up mine from JCPenney’s that was visibly showing.

Next: shoes. For the women, we all wore a heel. Our shoes had to be shined, I got in the habit of shining them nightly. We were told not to drive in our work heels, but to have another pair ready to slip on and off when we drove.

Hair. Rule number one: if it was long enough to touch your collar, it had to be worn up. My hair at the time reached my waist so I learned very quickly how do a chignon that would pass inspection AND that could be done with eyes half closed before the 5AM shift at the Charles de Gaulle airport in the outskirts of Paris.

Nails: short and trim. Flashy and long were frowned upon. Clear or nude colors were best.

Jewelry. Small and discreet were de rigueur..

Make up. To ensure that we all knew how to do our makeup, we were whisked out one by one to have an individual makeover from Lancôme, the goal was not to sell us products but to individually teach us what was the most flattering for us AND was in line with the company policy.

….smoky eyes were not an option.

The things you learn in boot camp can influence your behavior for a lifetime. To this day, I still prepare my clothes the night before and can do my makeup and hair in under 7 minutes. When you have been trained to start work at 5am and have been expected to look chic without one hair out of place…you learn to get ready…fast.

20 years on and working a corporate job in a different company, I once had a non French manager remark to another that every morning I was made up. I smiled a secret smile. Like a former soldier who still wears his hair short and presses his trousers, French women, especially former hostesses, usually have the “look.” The hair is done, the makeup is just so and there is just a je ne sais quoi of … style, class and sophistication.

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