In Charm Offensive, Kelly Ricciardi Colvin examines the many forces that shaped postwar French femininity as a desirable commodity, both within France and around the world. Read the full interview about her book below:
1. Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
Charm Offensive deals with how French femininity became a commodity that officials in the French government and beyond cultivated and exported well beyond the borders of France. I had been reading works that were a little bit peripheral to this subject, and then I read a book that referenced how the government hired welcome hostesses, wearing pink uniforms and white gloves, to make tourists feel more at home and rid the French of their reputation for being rude to foreigners. I was totally intrigued! I dug in and traced the welcome hostess program back to its roots in the air hostess (what we would call flight attendant) program from the 1940s, and I saw its remarkable expansion from there. I then followed the hostessing program through its rapid expansion, from airplanes to trains to…you name it! It was really a fascinating journey, one that culminated in a vision of idealized French femininity that all women were supposed to achieve. Even today, if you scroll through social media or pick up a magazine, “French girl” style is everywhere. Lessons on how to dress, eat, or act like a French woman remain omnipresent.
2. What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
The most challenging aspect of the project was, if I’m being totally honest, researching and writing it with two little ones at home! Aside from that, I think accessing certain materials in France was a bit difficult, but I was fortunate in that Air France held its centennial anniversary right as I came to the project, and in honour of that, many of the materials had been digitized. Lucky moi! Finally, I am not an economic historian by any means, and parts of this project deal with how the French government depended fiscally on tourism – and, by extension, on this commodification of femininity. I also had to think about how much money women themselves spent on their own beauty routines. Understanding just how the numbers added up took a little time and help from a few friends, most notably my economist husband – thanks, Will!
3. Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?
I really did not know much about early flight attendants or air travel before embarking upon (pardon the pun) this project, and it was absolutely fascinating to learn about them. The early requirements to be an air hostess were daunting – bodies, faces, clothing, intelligence, and charm all played major roles in determining who made the cut. But these women were also adventurers, wanting to see the world after a particularly devastating experience of the Second World War. I also really admired their labour organizing capacity. I had not realized that flight attendants constituted some of the most powerful women’s unions, and they fought hard for their rights as workers – and often won against major airlines. Now, when I get on an airplane, I have a lot of extra admiration for this difficult, historically rich profession.
4. What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?
Writing a book is much more of a team project than most people might realize, and I am very grateful that the UTP team was so easy to collaborate with – they deserve a lot of credit. My main editor, Stephen Shapiro, shepherded the book throughout the process, and he was engaged, responsive, and collegial. Right from the beginning, Stephen made substantive suggestions to the book and proposal, thinking of ways to strengthen the project as a whole, a level of attention that he sustained over the course of publication. I really felt like he believed in me and the project, and that was invaluable. Also, Christine Robertson, the managing editor for Charm Offensive, was a cheerful, efficient organizing force, ensuring that the project stayed on schedule throughout the publication process. I very much enjoyed working with UTP for this book.
5. What do you hope readers will take away from reading Charm Offensive?
I hope that readers take away a couple of points from Charm Offensive. First, I hope that the actual history is interesting and well written and accessible, so that they feel as engaged as I did upon learning more about these remarkable times and people. Second, I hope that they notice the pervasiveness of a relatively narrow model of femininity that infuses our lives. Air hostesses had to be thin, elegant, sexy, smart, and charming, all in appropriate doses, and they became a standard for all French women, and even, I would argue, all women, as the strength of “French girl” style indicates. Identifying the origins of these narrow boundaries of femininity will, I hope, allow people to question its impact on their lives, and perhaps expand those boundaries at least a little bit.