My American pal Tish Jett has lived for decades in a charming village about an hour from Paris. Married to a Frenchman, and raising her daughter in France, Tish still considers herself an American citizen but has assimilated the French culture so well I often forget she’s not actually a Frenchwoman! That’s a great compliment, because I think French women are exquisite, from the way they dress to how they carry themselves, from their panache as hostesses to their affinity for little luxuries. And, of course there’s the way they talk!
A successful fashion journalist in the United States and in France, Tish shared her French sisters’ beauty and style secrets in her successful 2013 book Forever Chic. Now she’s turned her attention to their l’art de vivre in her new book, Living Forever Chic, Frenchwomen’s Secrets for Everyday Elegance, Gracious Entertaining, and Enduring Allure.
The new book, like its predecessor, is a gem, written in Tish’s delightfully natural style (“write like you talk, and you’ll be fine,” a top editor and Tish’s mentor told her when she was starting out) and packed with priceless and practical advice on subjects including setting the beautiful table, creating the perfect cheese plate, and “making our abodes elegant and efficient, from linens to the larder.”
To celebrate the publication of Living Forever Chic, I chatted with Tish (we’re pros at marathon chat sessions) about her love affair with fashion, France, and flair!
Did you like fashion when you were growing up?
I’ve always had an interest in fashion. My mother was tall, thin and very fashionable. Her father owned a menswear store in Niagara Falls, NY, and she’d have men’s clothes tailored for her from dad’s shop. Her sister was graceful and feminine, but mother would wear men’s suits and trousers. She loved tailored pieces. I liked my mom’s style.
When I was in college, I’d carry the big fall fashion issue of Glamour magazine around with me on campus.
Please tell us about your background as a fashion journalist.
My first honest-to-goodness job was on Women’s Wear Daily, at the time considered the “bible” of the fashion industry, where I was the Midwest bureau chief based in Chicago. Then I was recruited by The Detroit Free Press to be its Style Editor. It was a super exciting, glamorous job in a not-so-glamorous city, because I was sent to cover the fashion collections in Paris, Milan and London, which was my first European experience. From there, I became the Fashion Editor for The Daily News in New York, when they were starting an upscale afternoon edition.
Why did you decide to move to Paris?
The Daily News afternoon edition wasn’t doing well and had become a sad place to work. I was divorced by then, and my daughter was seven years old. Since I had traveled to Paris many times, and adored it, I thought I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I decided to take a gamble and go for two years to see what would happen. So, off we went. Besides my daughter Drea, I had three big dogs.
That was considered a bold move for a single mother in the 1980s. Did you get a job right away?
I was lucky to land a job with The International Herald Tribune, and also became a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune and a big newspaper publishing company.
How hard was it to adjust?
It was a huge adventure and a very, very exciting time for me. A real estate agent helped me find a house in the village where I still live with my husband. I’d walk my daughter Drea to the local two-room school, and she was tutored every single day in French. She learned to speak it in about six months because she wanted to have friends.
I didn’t speak a word of French and would talk really loudly when people didn’t understand my English. I embarrassed Drea when I talked to her in English in public, and she’d run out of sight. All I had to do was say the words ‘Get the milk.’ when we were in an epicerie. (After being in France for over three decades, Tish automatically slips French words into her conversation.)
How did you meet your husband?
I was invited to a dinner party at the house of one of Drea’s classmate’s, and Alex was invited because he also spoke English.
What was it about your last book, Forever Chic, that resonated with women all over the world? It’s been translated into 14 languages!
I think Forever Chic worked because it spoke to our demographic about beauty in ways that were positive and possible. It’s never too late to do something better. Many women told me, ‘I’m taking better care of myself.’ If you do something for yourself, you’re not taking away from doing for other people. If you feel really good about yourself, you’re really nice to other people. If you feel you look terrible, and you’re stressed, you get snappish and aren’t good around others.
Your new book, Living Forever Chic, is packed with advice about entertaining, homemaking, and decorating. Is it ever too late to learn how to look and live stylishly?
Never. As we age, there can be a tendency to get comfortable and complacent– I call it Fear of Trying– but don’t get locked into safe and easy. When you make things as beautiful, interesting, brilliant, distinctive, and amusing as possible, and create your own little world, it inspires joy.
I would recommend to a woman who has never invested herself emotionally in her home to experiment for one week and see what happens when she sets a pretty table, for example. Use placements, and if you don’t feel like ironing cloth napkins, pull them through napkin rings, even with wrinkles. Plunk flowers from the grocery in a pitcher and see if it doesn’t make you feel happy.
One friend places small glass animals on the table, surrounded by real branches, votives and flowers. Another friend buys inexpensive, colorful glasses at Monoprix, which is the French version of Target. Pretty is pretty and it doesn’t matter how much it cost. You can take the most humble materials, such as wicker, put them on a table, add some color, and have a beautiful table.
You can create your own world, and take control of your life, in your home. You’re always going to have unpleasant circumstances out of your control but why leave things that you can control with the attitude ‘I don’t care.’
Why are Frenchwomen so concerned about looking and living stylishly?
It all began with the kings of France, who wanted to surround themselves with beautiful things, from porcelain and crystal to perfume and furniture. This constant association in France with beautiful things seeps into individuals and brings out every woman’s unique sense of style.
One of the most remarkable things about Frenchwomen is that they don’t want to be anybody but themselves. They know they’re original from the day they’re born. If a Frenchwoman doesn’t like something about herself–let’s says her nose, her hair, or her short legs, she’s not blind to it, but she thinks ‘it is what it is.’ She strives to create a vision of herself that makes her look stylish and feel good.
Why do you think American women are generally more inhibited?
A lot of American women don’t want to be looked at, to stand out, while Frenchwomen love it. They dress to be looked at and they like it. I’m not talking only about young women, or great beauties with exquisite figures. All Frenchwomen think they’re going to be looked out the minute they walk out the door and they dress accordingly.
Many American women just want to hide in their sweats, thinking ‘no one will see me.’ But people will see you.
I glow when someone tells me they love my style. It’s a simple pleasure and I take joy where I can get it.
How can a woman feel more secure about stepping out of her ‘comfort zone.’?
You can explore being bolder in small ways, by starting slowly. Let’s say you’ve been wearing simple white shirts your whole life. Why not take a collarless white shirt and put a colorful scarf over it. Or buy a wing-collar tuxedo shirt, which is extremely flattering because the collar turns up, and it has all the lovely detailing down the front. It really is all about the details. Why not wear a crazy pair of earrings. Or try out a bright color nail polish. There are a zillion ageless things you can do that will make you feel fresh and new and different. You don’t have to go berserk.
What kind of Frenchwoman gets the most respect?
A woman who has ‘character.’ She’s solid, knows what she wants, has convictions. She’s respected for what she stands for. She’s not fluffy and unsure and trying to please everyone all the time. She’s not a pushover, and doesn’t bend with the latest opinion on this or that.
What are the top Frenchwoman “no-nos.”?
Don’t overcomplicate anything you do. The chef at the Michelin three-star restaurant at The Bristol in Paris tells friends who invite him to dinner to keep it simple. Roast, a chicken, get some great potatoes, a vegetable of the season, and do a great ice cream or apple tart for dessert. Just because you’re entertaining a famous chef doesn’t mean you have to overthink what to serve.
Don’t overdress. Wear a pant that looks good on you to a dinner party. Throw on a blazer, a great silk shirt, and some earrings, and call it a day. Look good for your hostess and her guests. You owe it to her. Overdressing and fussiness are cardinal sins. It’s better to be underdressed. Be well tailored and simple. Coco Chanel invented the little black dress. She was never overdressed. Yves St.Laurent invented the tuxedo. He was never overdressed.
Don’t worry about what others think of you. You get to a certain age and you know who you are and what you believe.
Don’t act uncharitably to others, even if their behavior displeases you. Understand others’ limitations and decide the level of friendship you want to have with them. Good manners in France are just part of society; you can be polite and be distant at the same time.
Don’t compare yourself to others or have an unrealistic expectations of beauty, success or what you should be. Get on with it. Be the best of what you are. Don’t aspire to look like anyone else. To be anyone. Don’t be a clone to anyone.
Don’t ever think that comfort and elegance are mutually exclusive. Elegance can’t exist without comfort or ease, whether it’s in decorating or your personal style. Who wants to walk into an exclusive living room and be afraid to sit down on a precious piece of furniture? And, who wants to be or watch a woman who can’t walk in a pair of stilettos? There’s no point. But don’t cross the red line to sloppy. There’s a huge difference between ‘I care’ and ‘I don’t care.’
Don’t settle for less. Buy the best you can and don’t become a consumer who is buying and buying and cluttering up.
Learn to say ‘NO.’ When American women say no to something they don’t want to do, we usually give a paragraph of explanation. A Frenchwoman will just say ‘No, I can’t do it.’ PERIOD. FULL STOP.
What did you learn from writing your new book?
I learned that in order to be free and have a comfortable and joyous life, you have to have an intelligent, well-organized life, from the larder to the closet. It lets you take care of your grooming, your upkeep. It makes your life infinitely more enjoyable. If you have a disordered life, you’re less content with your life. You’re less happy.
P.S. Now that you’ve ‘met’ Tish, check out her delightful blog, A FEMME D’UN CERTAIN AGE. It’s witty, warm and welcoming.