Not long after I arrived in Paris in 2016, I caught two trains to Manchester for a weekend to run 10 kilometres in an elephant suit. I stepped out of Manchester Piccadilly into light rain and a motley crowd of teenagers with blue hair and men with septum piercings and overweight women in fishnets and miniskirts.
I didn’t realise until I left how narrow Paris is, in terms of everyday fashion. In the centre at least, in the more expensive quartiers, the limits of “normal” and “acceptable” are tightly defined. I have joked lovingly about the Paris uniform – jeans, sneakers, shirt, leather jacket optional – and as a girl living out of little more than a suitcase I am infinitely grateful for it: my practical wardrobe is suitable here for both work and play, for early mornings and late nights and most things in between.
In summer, the rules change slightly to allow for cotton dresses, a-line skirts and t-shirts, wedge sandals. Jeans go, sneakers stay. The very occasional tailored short. Sleeveless is fine, strapless is unheard of. Everything is slightly loose-fitting, so that bodies move inside clothes not as though the clothes are too big, but as though the bodies are small and delicate.
It took me a long time to work out what the difference was, why I could tell the visitors from the locals instantly even if the tourists, like me, were wearing the uniform. But it’s possible, oh so possible, to get the uniform wrong: running shoes instead of casual sneakers, ill-fitting jeans, polo shirts. A lot of exposed skin that is not smooth and luminous. This is where non-Parisians go wrong all the time, in addition to the other blatant misstep of being overweight.
My Australian friend, visiting from London, pinpointed it over a long lunch.
Aesthetics, she said, doing an irritatingly good job herself in a patterned sundress, white sneakers, and tousled hair. I, sartorial sinner, lost cause, was wearing a Hogwarts t-shirt. They value beauty.
And beauty, it seems, is even more rigidly defined here than elsewhere. It is casual and practical, ready to step off a bike and into a bar. It is often loose-haired and fine-boned and light on accessories. It experiments with scientific reserve, one variable at a time (a brocade coat over jeans and a white t-shirt; a snakeskin boot with a straight black dress).
A Parisian friend is more blunt. If I see someone with blue hair, he says, I assume there’s something wrong with them.
Little wonder, though, that a city so physically dominated by lines – proud boulevards, stately avenues – tends sartorially to colour inside them.
The grandest and most recognisable line is the Axe historique, which since the 17th Century has been Paris’ spine and today marches on unbent from the Louvre, under the Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel (“the little one”, topped with a quadriga that always makes me think of the Brandenburg Gate), through the Jardin des Tuileries, across the Place de la Concorde, the length of the Avenues of the Champs-Elysées, la Grande Armée, and Charles de Gaulle (passing through the “real” Arc de Triomphe on the way), and finally over the Seine to the modern Grande Arche in the business district of La Defense. Crossing the road on a clear day at almost any point along this triumphal way, as it’s also known, is an exercise in awe and timing: the perfect linear grandeur of the thoroughfares between monuments demands to be admired, while Paris traffic charges on unmoved and willing to run down the momentarily mesmerised pedestrian.
If Louis XIV and Napoleon laid the foundations with the Voie Triomphale, it was Georges-Eugene Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the 1800s that turned her into the City of Lines; an ambitious project of demolition and creation with the explicit intent of making a grim urban landscape more spacious, interconnected and beautiful. Today it is impossible to imagine Paris without the perfect symmetry of Rue de Rivoli, or Boulevards Sébastopol, Magenta and Voltaire.
I have a theory that it’s the lines that have made Paris, throughout history, such a haven for artists. What better place for the beauty-obsessed and the subversive than a city physically and culturally defined by lines demanding to be either admired or transgressed?
Paris is an immersive masterclass in perspective and light, its arrow-straight boulevards lined by stone buildings dressed in much the same style as the modern Parisian woman: slight variations on an elegant theme. (While their balconies and turrets and windows are rarely uniform, Haussmanian buildings never exceed six storeys and their height is, or at least once was, proportional to the width of the street at their feet).
Although Haussman went out of style, lines never did. The Arch built at La Defense in the 1980s not only aligned perfectly with the arches at l’Etoile and Carrousel but also, in a different direction, created a new axis with the two tallest buildings in the city, the Eiffel Tower and the modern Tour Montparnasse in the 15th arrondissement.
What the lines mean, in practice, is that in almost every neighbourhood of Paris there’s an elegantly framed, precisely centred and often unexpected view of something. Round a corner in Grands Boulevards and you’re face to face with the domes of Sacre-Cœur; turn your back for a moment on the Pantheon and the Eiffel Tower peers over the Jardin de Luxembourg. Even after 18 months these picture-frame moments still sneak up on me: from the very modern heights of Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton building on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, the Eiffel Tower appears perfectly centred between two curved roof sections.
Haussmann would perhaps be disappointed to discover that the line that most powerfully defines Paris both physically and culturally today is its least beautiful. The Boulevard Périphérique ringroad draws a shaky circle along the city’s administrative limits, separating the city of Paris from her suburbs with absolute authority. If you live outside the Périph, you are not from Paris; you are from the banlieues and you will correct anyone who misplaces you.
The not-Paris beyond the Périphérique is infinitely more diverse; cross the physical boundary of Paris and you’re more likely to transgress her intangible limits. The word banlieue has become weighted with poverty and racial tension, with insecurity and ugliness.
But the banlieues range all the way from desperation to decadence; from the “hot” neighbourhood of Saint-Ouen in the north-west, it’s a short drive to the central business district of La Defense, all glass towers and global insurance firms. Venture south-west and the suburbs are village-pretty, filled with detached houses that smell of woodsmoke in winter and have little gardens where fat snails and lost hedgehogs take refuge.
The French Government – famous for drawing incomprehensible bureaucratic lines around everything from employment rights to handwriting – seems to enjoy sending newcomers to the end of metro lines in search of its elusive approval. In September I approach the Périph to visit the Prefecture de Police, an application for a French driver’s licence clutched in my hand. I walk a past a long, silent queue of people behind an A4 printout directing Asylum Seekers This Way, and join a shorter line that shuffles towards the bleak administrative building. I’m wearing my good sneakers and my leather jacket for the occasion. Please, my dossier says in triplicate. I’ll drive within your lines if you’ll let me.