Monday, March 21, 2016

What Is Je ne Sais Quoi?

In my previous post, I linked to an interview I did for my hometown newspaper entitled Finding Your Je ne Sais Quoi.  The interviewer, Anne Neborak, an award-winning photojournalist, is also a former high school classmate of mine, so we had fun working together and catching up on the intervening years. 

In Finding Your Je ne Sais Quoi, I talked about what I see as the difference between fashion and style and how I learned from Mme Mère the importance of the little detail that adds a certain je ne sais quoi to a classic outfit

I’m happy to say that the interview generated a lot of positive feedback and some interesting questions from my readers.  Here are three of my favorites: 

How do you define je ne sais quoi

Do you have to be French to have je ne sais quoi

Do you have to be born with je ne sais quoi or can you acquire it?

O.K., let’s start with my own, by-no-means definitive, definition of the term je ne sais quoi

How do you define je ne sais quoi

First of all, the words je ne sais quoi literally mean “I don’t know what,” which means “I don’t know  what it is, but it’s something special.”  In other words, it’s a quality you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it when you see it. 

The woman with je ne sais quoi simply stands out from the rest, not just because of how she dresses, but because she exudes intelligence, confidence, style and sophistication.  She need not be beautiful, or even especially pretty, but, let’s be honest, it doesn’t hurt. 

I’ve known many stylish young women in my life, but the few women I have known who had that je ne sais quoi were all d’un certain âge with some patina to them.  Something to look forward to, Ladies. 

Portrait of Juliette Récamier by the baron Gérard - 1805 Musée Carnavalet
In the end, je ne sais quoi may be an elusive quality not easily defined, but, like a great painting, you know it when you see it, even if you know nothing about art.   The French socialite, Juliette Récamier, whose Paris salon was renowned for its literary and political dévotés, was also renowned for her beauty, intellect and charm.  Even in a simple, white chemise, sans jewels and adornments, it’s plain to see that this ravishing young woman had je ne sais quoi to spare. 

Do you have to be French to have je ne sais quoi

In a word – non!  The French may have invented the term, but they do not have a monopoly on those to whom it applies. 

Princesse Grace 1929 to 1982 
Need I say more?  Princesse Grace, née Grace Patricia Kelly, born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was a thoroughly American girl with a thoroughly American, no-nonsense, minimalist approach to style. 

To read my very personal story about Princesse Grace and how she is to thank for my one and only brush with fame, click on My Life in Hats. 

Do you have to be born with je ne sais quoi or can you acquire it?

“No” and “Yes.”  But, even for those lucky enough to be born with it, it must be nurtured by the right circumstances and influences. 

And when it comes to nurturing your nascent je ne sais quoi or acquiring it, here is where the French woman has an advantage over her American cousin.   

Catherine Deneuve at 70
The French woman is surrounded by examples and icons to influence her, 

Inès de la Fressange at 58 – model, Lagerfeld Muse, designer, entrepreneur
all of whom, despite differences of style, approach and appearance, share one characteristic in common – femininity.  Femininity is an essential element of je ne sais quoi. 

the beautiful Carole Lombard (1908 to 1942), Mrs. Clark Gable
In the glory days of Hollywood, the studios regularly turned ordinary women into ultrafeminine, glittering movie stars with oodles of je ne sais quoi.  Most did not have staying power, but those who did became role models to generations of young women hoping to develop their own je ne sais quoi.  

Sadly, the silver screen no longer produces such icons.  Sadder still, the whole concept of femininity has dropped off the radar screen of the modern American woman.  Just take a look at the bar in your local restaurant and you will see well-dressed young women swilling beer from the bottle.  I confess it makes my heart sink every time I see it.  

The American woman with je ne sais quoi is fast becoming an endangered species.  How long will it be before she becomes extinct?  


  1. Hi M-T,

    All five of the women you showcased were born breathtakingly beautiful. So I feel its easier to have that "certain something" when you you start out gorgeous.The Hollywood System had a staff of makeup-artists, clothing designers, hairdressers, elecution teachers, make the pretty into goddesses.

    However, even without all the Hollywood help, a woman can achieve that "certain something". Its takes hard work, discipline & good eye. But the rewards are so worth it.

    The French women learn how to have that "certain something" from their mothers & grandmothers at young age. Its part of their culture.

    In the '50's American women were the envy of women everywhere. We were slimmer, stylish & well-groomed. Let's just look @ photos of our mothers & grandmothers.

    1. Hi Rosie,

      Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I did showcase five beauties, and you are correct that it's easier to achieve that "certain something" when you start out gorgeous, but many beautiful women never achieve it and many less than beautiful women do. We have a whole category of French women known as the "belle laide," which roughly translates as "beautiful ugly." The late Andrée Putman comes to mind. She had incredible chic and style and "je ne sais quoi," but no one would ever have called her beautiful.

      You are, also, correct that, in addition to the role models I cited, French women look to their mothers and grandmothers to learn the fine art of developing that "certain something." I know Mme Mère was my first and most lasting icon.

      During the '50's, if you saw a well-dressed, stylish woman in Paris, she was often American, and I have the photos to prove it.

      Always love your well-crafted comments and appreciate the time you take to make them, Rosie.

      Cheers, M-T

  2. How could I have missed your interview? Nicely done. However it forgot to mention your character and inherent loveliness, and isn't that what style is all about?

    I especially liked the part you mention about the sailing ship and not being 20 again. I agree. Embrace age, smart dressing is really about confidence and knowing what works and what doesn't. As Chanel said, Dress Impeccably and they remember the Woman.


    1. Oh my, you did make me blush. Your assessment of smart dressing is absolutely spot on. We would all like to be remembered as Chanel is remembered, at least by those whose lives we have touched.

      So wonderful to hear from you, my dear.

      xox, M-T

  3. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    That is a post which subject is tugging heavily on my heart as well!
    You are so right about lots of feminity and one could easily say, the entire level of class we see around, has been sliding off way too much! My husband cannot stand drinking beer from a bottle, even for men... let alone women. You would never catch me doing things like that and I will not succumb to it till I die!
    Let's hope there will always be women like you that show the world how it still CAN be done, even at this age and time.
    The biggest problems is the addictions to sugar and all the bad food that is being advertised and forced upon the people that very few can stand up against it. With that, most elegant style is being thrown overboard as it will not fit. Sad, very sad fact as most people will pay with numerous health issues 'later'...
    Sending you hugs,

    1. I'll drink to everything you've said..........from a stemmed wine glass, bien sûr. My husband is the same. Likes an occasional beer, but always from a glass. He claims it tastes better that way, w/a bit of air getting to it. He may be right.

      As always, thanks so much for stopping by, my friend.

      Big hugs,

  4. Last night I was at Trader Joe's where I witnessed many American women looking beautiful. And then I heard French being spoken, turned to see who it was, and saw two women. Let's just say they were definitely missing the je ne sais quoi. Greasy, messy hair, and clothes that looked the same. If they were tourists, I understand ... slightly.

    I'm just trying to say, like you say as well, that there are good examples of "that certain something" (and the opposite) everywhere.

    1. Well said. You definitely have to choose your role models very carefully these days.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Cheers, M-T

  5. To be born healthy & beautiful is a blessing. But I think this Je ne Sais Quoi is more about something we cultivate as women - class, intelligence, kindness and confidence.
    Nice one M-T!

    1. Excellent observation, Cheri. We must cultivate it the way we cultivate a beautiful garden.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Cheers, M-T


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