Born and raised in Paris – and in the true French tradition – I started smoking at the age of 14. Four years later, when I moved to England for my studies, I had to kick the habit. This wasn’t out of sheer willpower, mind you, but because of my scarce student budget: a pack of fags cost approximately £8 (around 12 euros) and the choice between food and tobacco seemed fairly obvious at the time. Now that I have relocated to the French capital, I am forced to admit that old habits do indeed die hard.
So what is it about Paris that encourages its inhabitants to light up? And how is the tendency intrinsically linked to fashion?
Before the First World War, smoking was largely regarded as a masculine behaviour and regarded as taboo for women. Just like wearing trousers, smoking would be seen as a transvestite performance during the course of the 19th century. The only social crowd that would dare to engage in this type of gender-crossing activity, so as to titillate, were the sexually promiscuous: desirable courtisanes. Therefore, to a great degree, puffing has always been sexy – and linked to fashion as a culture.
By the 1920s, the tobacco industry saw an opportunity in the ever-increasing emancipation of women to market cigarettes as a commodity. This led to one of the most controversial campaigns in the history of advertising: “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”, which effectively marked the foundation of the relationship between cigarettes and feminine beauty.
The use of cigarettes as appetite suppressants is also inherently related to the pressure French girls endure to stay slim starting at a very young age. Think the Lucky Strike ad was shocking? A couple of years ago, the French diet guru Pierre Dukan (who sold 4 million copies of his method, by the way) suggested that teenagers who managed to maintain their BMI between 18 and 25 during high school should be rewarded with extra points on their baccalauréat diploma. He didn’t advertise cigarettes as such, of course, but it just goes to show that the diktat of slenderness is still extremely relevant, nearly a century after the Lucky Strike campaign. And why do we want to stay slim? Well, that links us right back to the theme of fashion.
“Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, said famously Kate Moss, who lit up a cigarette as she strolled down the catwalk during Paris Fashion Week 2011. This also shows that there is more to smoking than numbers on the scales: cigarettes look cool. The glamour and poise of smoke-exhaling lips on camera are undeniable, and the French stylist and ex-model Valentine Fillol Cordier conveyed this impression perfectly:
“Fashion loves to go back, to reference itself. And smoking helps: it says history, and style, and it works well for what it says in two dimensions. It’s a bit dreamy, a bit intellectual, it gets smoky and it fills the screen. But it’s in films, in stills, in photos, in something that happened before. It’s in two dimensions. That’s what we love. In all dimensions, in real life, well… you know, it actually stinks. It smells. And it kills. I was a smoker, hell yes. When I was a model – and the people who have a go at models who smoke, well, it kept our weight down. But it has always been far more cool on the screen than in real life. It just works better there.”
Back to 2015. Almost half of the French population aged between 18 and 34 smoke – and 37% of 11 to 15 year olds say they can’t cope without a cigarette. Our parents smoked. Our grandparents smoked. Our idols smoked (and some of them still do). A few weeks ago, French MPs voted for the neutralization of cigarette packaging starting next year and I wonder how effective this strategy will prove to be, compared to a drastic price rise for example. Besides, cigarettes are associated with so many facets of our culture, the war would have to take effect on a variety of fronts – from the thinness concern to the on-screen visual appeal.
Why haven’t we done more, yet? Is it because we don’t reaaaally want to quit? E-cigarette shops in France are biting the dust and progressively closing down, one by one. They just don’t look as good as the real deal. But there’s also some kind of national pride in the image of the French smoker; the picture of the slender-looking and charismatic smoking Parisian isn’t the worst stereotype we could have been stuck with, to be honest.
— Olivia Kutxi