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Thinking about Paris in Chicago


 Today my body is in Grand Rapids but in my head I’m in Paris.

Why?   I’m reading an interesting book by an Australian Journalist who moves to Paris to follow a boyfriend and last week I toured a blockbuster exhibit in Chicago called “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity.”

Guess what? It’s all about life in Paris in the time period between 1860-1880’s.

And I am prepping for a series of talks I am going to give at Rancho La Puerta in November.  Yes. I’ll be talking about Paris.

Whew.  This has me waking up wondering where I am…..


Let’s see if I can pull some common threads together.

First the book.  It’s called, “Almost French, Love and a New Life in Paris” by Sarah Turnbull It is an absolutely wonderful memoir by an Expat from Australia who meets a French man on assignment in Bucharest, Romania. She accepts an invitation to visit him in Paris and ends up marrying him.

Her book is a insightful description of what it is like to adapt to the culture of the Parisians ……very personal and fascinating.

I could totally relate to her descriptions of where they lived  near Rue Montorgueil.  Here’s a photo I took recently of this street.  It’s a market street in the heart of Paris near Les Halles. It is a two block street where the majority of the shops are food oriented.  Cafes. Boulangeries. Butchers. Wine. Fromageries. Chocolatiers and fruit and vegetables.  It is one of the streets I like to visit.

 It’s very near The Church of St Eustace, Paris built between 1532 and 1632.  I love the large sculpture in front of it.  I have a happy memory of spotting these folks near by. All this is rolling around in my head as I read the book.




 But back to the book.

 Sarah Turnbull writes  a lot about fashion and how she has learned that the Parisians believe in being well put out–a tradition that emerged during the 17th century when Louis XIV built a culture of beauty, etiquette and elegance that still dictates details of life in France.

Made me think about the exhibit at Chicago. “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity.”    It exhibits some blockbuster Impressionist paintings accompanied by excellent examples of the attire worn at the time.




I posted a few snaps  from the entrance to the exhibit in Chicago  on Facebook ( no cameras allowed inside ) and one of my friends said her kids (accomplished and talented artists themselves) thought the exhibit was contrived and a means of getting people into the museum.  She wanted to know what did I think?

I have been thinking about that…..and yes, they could be right, but I do wonder if they understand that at the time the Impressionists were creating their work they were avant guard and shocking.  They were the forward thinking artists, experimenting and breaking the rules while painting what they saw in modern life.

They painted  La Parisienne, a term used to describe the modern woman.   It was lovely to see such well preserved beautiful clothing of more than 150 years old…on display and accompanied by paintings…

Here’s an example of the actual garment that is in a painting in the exhibit.  Fabulous.


I was intrigued with the idea that another artist might have added white lace and flounces to a black dress in his painting to enhance the composition.  Hmmm.  I wonder what the designer thought?  As a former fashion writer, I’m astounded.  We’d never add something to a garment in fashion coverage because we thought it would make the image better. But then, this was all about art, not journalistic reporting.

I’m also totally wrapped up in this era because I’m doing some lectures at Rancho La Puerta in the fall (click this link for description) and have been reading history of Paris in preparation.  It was interesting to me to learn that the dresses with the huge silk skirts over whale bone crinolines where made fashionable by Empress Eugenie, partly to stimulate the silk business.  It’s fashion as an economic engine.

Eugenie was married to Napoleon III, the man responsible for so much of what we love about Paris–the wide boulevards,  the cafes and see-and-be-seen environment,  the consistency of the building materials and architecture.  The height of the buildings.    Making Paris such a walkable gorgeous city.

It was a tumultuous time in Paris–urban renewal, avant guard art and changing fashion.  The exhibit captures much of the era.   But I’m gong to sign off and go back to my book to learn more about Sarah’s life with Frederick in the City of Light. Oh-la-la.

Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    Jul 29, 2013 Reply

    Interesting but what I loved most about this piece Susan was the darling couple entertaining passersby….how sweet! Great photo….again!

    • posted by
      Jul 29, 2013 Reply

      Thanks, Barb, I loved them too. He was very happy to be entertaining……while she hung back a bit and I’m not sure she knew what she was doing. Happy though. I thought they were very cute. They both looked embarrassed when I threw some money in the bowl they clearly had out for contributions. One of those wonderful Paris memories.

  2. posted by
    Peggy DePersia
    Jul 29, 2013 Reply

    Isn’t it amazing how things are so often about way more than they appear.
    The changing ways of life, fashion and art were so interwoven at the time period you write about in Paris that I want to attribute it to what might fall within the idea of a collective unconscious. Though we might not understand the intricate relationships or imagine that they might have been posed after the fact, I have a feeling that the Parisians ‘totally’ got it.
    Really enjoyed this post and the many connections you are making…a sort of connect the dots in a way.

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