I started this post a while ago, after I saw “Emily in Paris,” the social-media-drenched, Gen-Z version of “Sex in the City,” transported across the Atlantic. It’s a confection as substantial as a Ladurée macaron and equally delicious. The City of Light even outshines the series’ gorgeous star, Lilly Collins.
And yet, as inconsequential as the plot lines may be, there are some lessons, and they aren’t the ones the series’ creator intended. The premise is that Lily Collins’ Emily is a bright go-getter, a social media marketing whiz, sent to the Paris office that her Chicago-based employer has just acquired. She’s stepping in for her boss, who unexpectedly can’t go. She doesn’t speak French and is far junior, but no problem, she will win over everybody by virtue of her spunk and American can-do spirit.
And she does.
But Emily also evolves, acquiring sophistication along the way. She makes a real effort to learn about the clients and their histories, because many great French brands do have long histories. This is a country proud of history and suspicious of those who think they can invent something new when it’s clear that most “new” stuff is iterations on what we’ve already seen. She studies French.
In fact, the show itself is an iteration on the “fish out of water” theme, not so different from “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” or even “Working Girl.” The outsider develops understanding and wins acceptance, despite constantly feeling inadequate. But Emily is too encased in her self-centered bubble to suffer from imposter syndrome. She’s bubbly and positive and convinced that gumption will make up for her many mistakes. She’s adorable and not mean at all. She’s also not stupid. Eventually she starts to catch on. The show seems to imply that she wins over the French but as I see it, France wins over Emily. Through experiences and introspection, Emily metamorphizes into a hybrid, not a fish out of water but a creature that can thrive in many habitats. And that is essence of sophistication.
The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “the quality of having an understanding of the world and its ways, and having an understanding of the way people behave.”
Do you notice the part of the definition that’s about expensive clothes?
Or the part about elite education?
How about the part about a big bank account?
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that this thing, sophistication, that is so elusive, so rare, is actually accessible to anybody who tries.
Yes, you, too, can be sophisticated. Et le voilà, in two simple steps. (All the social media rules say one should deliver advice in odd numbers, but this is it.)
1. Be confident. This is not “fake it ’til you make it” advice. I mean real confidence. That comes from knowing what you’re doing in any given situation. If you never try new things, you will never learn new things. Mistakes will happen. Every time you calmly make a good decision and sidestep a mistake because of having been there and done that, you are sophisticated.
This confidence is calm and zen. It is not arrogance. In fact, arrogance arises from the absence of confidence. Arrogance is all about “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Which is a way of hiding that one does care very much but wants to pretend, for ego’s sake, that not knowing is unimportant.
Real confidence requires work. It requires not only trying new things but practicing them. Astronauts drill procedures into their brains so that they are ready for anything when they’re out in space. I just heard an interview with a cave diver (I could hardly stand it—if there’s anything worse than having my head under water it would be doing it in a cave in the dark…I need to go outside to breathe just remembering this), who talked about how she would think through every imaginable problem, and when one happened, she went through the necessary movements almost automatically. This is technical sophistication. We are talking about the same thing, but with people, instead of outer space or underwater caves. It’s about knowing how to get through sticky situations without panicking.
This is where money does come into play—those kids who spent their summer vacations abroad got a gift of sophistication, compared with people who never left their country until they were adults (like yours truly), or those who have never traveled. If you’re short on money, then read. Watch movies—foreign movies. There’s so much free material now on the Internet. Watch foreign TikToks, for crying out loud. Go on virtual walks around the world with Street View. But mostly, read. Novels, even in translation, take you into another world. We can’t travel right now, but as soon as that’s possible again, do it.
Another thing you can do for free or not expensively: learn a new language. Emily doesn’t have time—she’s thrown into the situation. The school in our village started teaching kids English from preschool. In junior high, the kids had to pick a second foreign language. Not a second language—a second foreign language. English plus something else—Spanish, German, Russian… True sophisticates are multilingual. But you earn sophistication points with at least some key phrases, especially tourists—who is going to learn an entire language every time you go on vacation? A little vocabulary, at least “hello” and “thank you,” is fine. If you’re planning to live in another country you’d better get to at least level A2. Which isn’t asking much.
2. Quality over quantity. How’s this for crazy: Merriam-Webster defines sophistication as being deprived of native or original simplicity. Yet the cardinal rule of French sophistication is “less is more.” It’s a rule that advantages those without limitless means. If you can have only one of something, then you go for the thing that is simple, classic, timeless and sturdy enough to last a long time.
When Audrey Hepburn was getting her start in postwar London, “she had one skirt, one blouse, one pair of shoes and a beret, but she had fourteen scarves. What she did with them week by week, you wouldn’t believe,” said Nickolas Dana, the lead dancer in a musical whose chorus line included Hepburn, according to a book by Barry Paris.
In her late 80s, my mother asked for makeup advice, or to go to a makeup counter for a tutorial. She had macular degeneration and saw double. I told her she looked great (true) and that adding makeup was just taking a risk—how would she be able to tell whether she had totally botched it? She risked looking like one of the assisted-living residents with dementia, and dementia was not one of her problems. Less is more.
All that said, if you want to enjoy exuberant more-is-more, check out the inspiring and heartwarming blog Advanced Style. It made a fashion icon out of Iris Apfel, who says: “more is more and less is a bore.”
I think the “original simplicity” that sophistication is deprived of isn’t so much about fashion but the simplicity of thinking. That there’s only one way of doing things, and it’s the way you grew up with. This takes us back to the previous section—knowing that different cultures operate differently and adapting instead of mocking or rejecting, THAT is sophistication. My grandma used to mispronounce things (on purpose I suspect) that she thought were being fancy, such as “condominium,” when you could just say “apartment.” Or the idiot who mangled Kamala. Mocking is never sophisticated, even if all the best-dressed mean girls in movies do it; that just shows that some movie writers aren’t very sophisticated either. In France, the different rules mean saying “bonjour” when you walk into a shop and “merci” when you leave. They mean the waiter will not bring the check unless you ask because you are welcome to stay at your table as long as you want—this is a sign of good service, not bad. They mean always using your indoor voice.
In a similar vein, there’s a balance between trying too hard—not sophisticated—and not trying at all—not sophisticated either. Part of it is the confidence game—being at ease in your dress pants and cashmere sweater, as if, like Anna Wintour, this is what you always wear to relax, instead of sweats with rips and holes. Being at ease requires having clothes that fit, that are good for your body type, so that they do feel comfortable. Fit is more important than new—things can be second-hand, which might get you better quality, or shopped from your closet—but if they’re too tight or ragged, they don’t work. The more-is-more route is harder to get right, because it can easily look like trying way too hard. Like desperation.
There’s a certain acceptance, too, that not everything will be perfect, because expecting perfection is also trying too hard. I wonder about people today with social media showing us perfect faces and hair and bodies in perfect clothes sitting in perfect décor and eating perfect food or going on perfect trips. Perfection is like a rainbow, where it looks like it’s touching down just ahead but you never get there. Aspects of perfection might visit fleetingly, just long enough to snap a photo, but nobody lives it. There’s a huge spectrum in between slob and perfect for us to explore, each finding our place—or places, as our motivation at the moment moves us.
Sophistication, then, is about leaning into the crazy diversity and beauty of our world and enjoying the ride. That sounds like a good way to live, no?