Reading: The French Secret to Living Every Day with Style

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The French Secret to Living Every Day with Style

How to inject elegance and beauty into everything you do

By Tish Jett

Photo by John Canelis

One thing you have to give the French: they know how to live everyday life to its fullest. They’re quick to grab a book and enjoy a summer day reading on a bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, or take two hours on a Wednesday afternoon to savor a glass of wine during lunch with business colleagues.

But where does that ability to add style and appreciation for life come from? Is it innate, or are there things we can learn?

CoveyClub’s Paris correspondent, Tish Jett, moved to Paris decades ago and spent years researching that question by interviewing the most stylish women and men in France. In her new book, Living Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Timeless Secrets for Everyday Elegance, Gracious Entertaining, and Enduring Allure, she divulges their secrets and shows you how to get more pleasure and joy out of every hour of your life.

Here, Jett offers up some of her personal discoveries. Plus, she talks about the incredibly stylish treats she wrangled for CoveyClub giveaways. If you’r traveling to Paris, you can win an appointment with and treatment from Doctor Valerie le Duc or a free week of The Daily Dressing (go to our Instagram to enter).  

TheCovey: In Living Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Timeless Secrets for Everyday Elegance, Gracious Entertaining, and Enduring Allure you really try to dig down and excavate what is behind the French way of life. You get some of the most amazingly chic and knowledgeable French style makers to explain what the French approach to life, or l’art de vivre (the art of living) is. Can you explain what that is and what surprised you the most?

Tish Jett: The mere juxtaposition of the words “art” and “life” instantly evokes images of gracious living. With each interview I discovered how profoundly important l’art de vivre is for the French. It is a celebration of culture and history, a reflection of tradition steeped in a certain way of being. French culture encompasses family, gastronomy, decoration, l’art de table, love of nature, gallantry, elegance, literature, philosophy, and an appreciation of quality in all things, from everyday goods like cheese and butter to luxury items like perfume and jewels.

What surprised me the most? Perhaps it’s what I began to understand through those interviews that truly “living well” is simple. It’s a question of decisions and intent. It’s taking control of our lives and making the every day more appealing, as in creating lovely, comfortable homes; in setting a pretty table; making an effort dressing; showing civility and politesse to everyone; demonstrating poise, constraint, and respect.

L’art de vivre appeals to the senses and to the intellect. The French love words and conversation. They also love a good wine, a perfect peach, a divine fragrance, a bouquet of wildflowers.

I’ve found if I consciously ascribe to the philosophy of living well, that each day is more pleasant, more elegant in small, appreciable ways that truly do make a difference in my life.

TheCovey: It hit me the most when your style makers spoke about “history” being embedded in everything they do. They set the table a certain way because that is the French way that has been passed down forever. Why is that more relevant today? Is that what is missing in American life? We are always trying to reinvent everything and so have no sense of history?

Tish Jett: It’s interesting the way you have posed this question. It’s true. Over and over in my interviews, history was referenced in talking about the French art de vivre.

It’s this seamless cohabitation with the past and the present that fascinates me. Take forks and spoons for example when setting a table. The tines of the fork and the bowl of the spoon are “facing” down, a tradition that has endured even though one might see “our” way of setting a table [with everything facing up] in some Parisian restaurants these days, much to the chagrin of some purists.

It is true that working women – of all ages – have  simplified the every day, including meals, but they still pay attention to small details: an attractive table, with something interesting in the center, which might be an object that doesn’t need changing or a plant or a small bouquet, for example.  

Among my friends and their daughters I do not know one who doesn’t possess old family linens.

Now, that is not to say that they are used regularly because they require more care, as in ironing. However, they are used because the pleasure of slipping into beautiful old, sheets that have been washed hundreds of times is an inexplicable pleasure. They also make wonderful tablecloths. Old or new lightweight quilts also double as pretty table coverings.

Delphin Beltran, the artistic director of D. Porthault, talked about the joy of passing down family linens through the generations. “Bed linens are particularly personal and intimate, and there is something quite marvelous about keeping them for a long time,” she told me. “All linens, including tablecloths and napkins, remind children and grandchildren of their family history and are yet another way to communicate.”

I never have the impression, even if used only occasionally, that linens, porcelain, and silver passed down from generation to generation are perceived as cumbersome relics of the past, but rather part of a family’s continuing narrative.

TheCovey: Many women have such busy lives that they have put entertaining on the back burner. It seems too hard unless it’s totally casual. Do the French do casual? or is it more planned? What can we learn about the French attitude toward “receiving people” as you call it in the book?

Tish Jett: This is a really interesting question because I think there is a general misconception that the French only entertain formally. That’s not at all the case. In fact, truly formal entertaining is the exception rather than the rule.

Because there is such a deep, cultural appreciation for good food and all the better when it’s combined with convivial conversation, casual entertaining is very much part of l’art de vivre. My French niece entertains casually and often as do my close French girlfriends.

As I relate in my book, my best friend, Anne-Françoise, would call to say she had fresh eggs from her chickens, a lettuce from her potager, a nice bottle of wine and she was about to make an omelet, “so come over right this minute.”

She always made entertaining seem easy and she was a master of the formal as well as the informal.

The best hostesses and Michelin-star chefs stress the liberating decision to embrace simplicity. “Learn to make a few good, simple recipes, find a nice wine, add a good cheese, and either buy or make an easy dessert,” they all say.

My old friend Françoise Dumas, who creates some of the most glamorous soirées in France and Monaco for some of the most glamorous people in the world, when referencing a casual table setting says, “pretty is pretty. It doesn’t have to be elaborate.”

TheCovey: You go on to talk about the French secrets of beauty, perfume, and style. Give us your top three tips that really surprised you.

Tish Jett: It was surprising to me when my dermatologist told me that she likes to end all of her appointments with a 10-minute conversation about beauty. She will review the products her patients are using to see whether she thinks they are the best choices and recommend new or different strengths of products to maximize their effects. I arrive with a list of questions so that I stay on message after our yearly head-to-toe skin examination.

The director of one of the Clarins spas in Paris likes to recommend sophrology in conjunction with classic spa treatments to relieve what she sees as an epidemic of stress and anxiety in our lives. I had no idea what sophrology was. She explained to me that it is “the study of the consciousness in harmony with the body” consisting of a series of easy-to-perform mind and body exercises that lead to a healthy, relaxed, calm, and alert mind.

Sylvaine Delacourte, a former nose for Guerlain and now creator of her own line of fragrances, was a makeup artist before she began her career in perfume, so naturally I asked her about some of her favorite makeup tricks. One of my favorites was: “Mix foundation with a gel serum to lift and fix the skin.”

She also recommends a five- to 10-minute facial mask, rinsed off and then followed by an icy cold spray of water before applying makeup to create a naturally pretty tint to the skin. “It changes everything,” she said.

TheCovey: Lastly, why did you write the book?

Tish Jett: Because after the first book, Forever Chic: Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance, which was mainly about fashion and beauty, I felt there was so much more to talk about and for as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by all the components of l’art de vivre à la française.

I wanted to try — through the many interviews of leading French style-makers and reading of old French books — to understand the philosophy of l’art de vivre and examine both its intangible as well as its tangible expressions that can indeed make life more pleasing.

  1. Tish Jett

    Thank you so very, very much my dearest Lesley and most of all thank you for making the Rizzoli book signing Monday night so much fun. How lucky I am to have you in my life. You are a wonderful friend. xo

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