French Wardrobe Style Secrets for the Modern, Cosmopolitan Woman

french wardrobe style tips personal experiences

Today, by total coincidence, I stumbled upon an article about fashion things French women always do. Not going to name the website, because this piece of writing was very poorly done. The story had no depth to it, was generic, lackluster, riddled unfounded “facts” and contained no nuance what so ever.

Ouch! Poor advice, for whoever finds it. On the bright side, what the article in question did was to be a source of inspiration. It motivated me to put something better out there, with both more substance and a more nuanced outlook.

Meanwhile, I’ve come across some other articles covering the same subject that are the complete opposite of the first one: informative, engaging and personable, with great insights and quotes from French ladies. These lovely articles are included in the reading list further down.

Oh, right about now you’re probably wondering what makes me the judge of French wardrobe contents or style.

I was born and raised in France. Quite possibly I’m not as hip to the latest as I used to be, as it’s been over fifteen years since I actually lived there. Still – I like to think I’m fairly well placed to have an opinion on the subject. Street slang and youth subculture change faster than you can say Bonjour, but how French women dress isn’t as ephemeral a topic.

So let’s debunk some facts, and pull in the many great nuggets of inspiration from people who actually do know what they’re talking about. Because that is the two-faced nature of the internet beast: you’ll find loads of rubbish as well as a wealth of fabulous information about almost anything.

Shoes: about sneakers, flats, talons aiguilles

Who What Wear has asked French style bloggers for input on what French women would never wear. The article is very fun to read, but it begs the question: are these actual French fashion bloggers (French ladies who write about fashion) or fashion bloggers (not French) who cover French style?

The first one is clearly French herself and mentions French women would never wear too high heels. My eyebrows shoot up instantly because… yes, they do. However, when she mentions Lady Gaga, it becomes clear she means ridiculous heels. Didn’t even think of those.

See, talons aiguilles is French for high heels (literally ‘needle heels’). Elegant and thin, but very high nonetheless.

The takeaway: Classic heels, high or very high, oh oui! Preposterous shoes with the elegance factor of a neon highlighter, non merci.

On that note, it’s not as much about the height as more about the shape of heels. Lower heels are nice enough, but something with a bit more oomph isn’t off limits, as long as the shoes are tasteful, not tacky. Also, sneakers are not the same as running shoes.

The cliches a.k.a. basics of a French wardrobe

Trench coat, blazer, nautical stripes, beret, chemise… Even if it can be hard to sum up what exactly is a typical French dress-style, we all kind of know it when we see it.

Cliche’s, perhaps, but in a good way. It’s just what they have become over time because they work well. Reflecting the timeless elegance of French women, these are go-to classics to nail the style. The “incontournables” (unavoidables, indisputables) of a French wardrobe.

Prints & Colors

When you Google something along the lines of ‘French women style’ and go to the images, what do you see? Lots of black, navy, white, beige, cream, neutrals and the occasional pop of color.

Color isn’t a dirty word in France. However, what regular color use is to Americans tends to qualify as color-overload to the French.

I think the difference may have to do with the American tendency to believe bigger is better and, as such, “more is more”. It makes sense, since supersizing is the USA’s corps business after all. Not much of stretch for that ethos to trickle through to other area’s of life, including wardrobe and dress-code.

In America, other colors and prints are popular. Shimmery, glittery, iridescent, or high gloss effects, as well as fluorescent, neon or candy colors, are very American. You’ll also see lots of blaring quotes, slogans, and logos. If French is what you’re aiming for, steer clear from those and cut down on the bling-bling.

Be yourself. The most classy version of yourself.

That second part is important because it isn’t about dying your hair purple, getting a nose piercing or a totally you-nique tattoo.

Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with extremer looks, if that’s what resonates with you; this article just won’t be the best source of inspiration for an alternative/punk styling.

Classy styled French abides by the laws of less is more, quality over quantity and the art of combining. Once you have number one and number two down, number three is where you’ll let your unique personality shine through without hitting those false notes of overdoing it.

A certain nonchalance is key, and so is your personal allure.

Don’t shy away from surprising combinations. Instead of looking completely undone or being overly dolled-up, go for an intriguing, eclectic mix of chill and chic. There is plenty of room on that spectrum to play with, depending on the occasion.

The same goes for texture and cut. Girly lace top? Khaki military shorts. Skinny jeans? Over-sized cashmere or cable sweater. Does the outfit mostly say ‘casual’? Add sultry shoes. Looking like a spotless businesswoman from the ankles upward? Throw on those sneakers.

Ultimately it isn’t about the clothes, but about you. What you’re wearing shouldn’t be the focus of attention at all. When your outfit is merely the stage supporting your magnetic personality, that’s when we can say: French wardrobe mission accomplished.

Lingerie; it’s a French word for a reason

Lingerie. Surprisingly, there is no mention of this in any of the articles about French wardrobe, style, or fashion essentials. Yet lingerie is a huge part of French dress-culture.

Maybe I should censor my attempts to pinpoint the differences between French lingerie and American undies because they won’t be in favor of the latter.

At Victoria’s Secret (after the initial shock and horror wear off) I’m still dazed by the array of colors more suited to a gelato display in a technicolor movie. A crass blend of unflattering colors and patterns; a cacophony of cringeworthy combinations.

american underwear trends
victoria's secret examples
americans prefer vivid colors pastels candy hues sporty bras

Also, the smaller cup sizes are so beefed up with whatever that stuff is that they are unusable to any woman with healthy self-esteem. That in itself is seriously distressing. What kind of message does it give? Guess you can fill that in for yourself (no pun intended) but it certainly isn’t one of a positive body image for slender gals. Makes you wonder whether the board of plastic surgeons own shares in Victoria’s Secret.

Etam lingerie used to be my favorite store. I checked online to see whether the trend of bubblegum candy shop colors and crass prints crossed over from the US since then.

french lingerie examples
lovely french lingerie
french wardrobe essentials lingerie

Even though it’s been over fifteen years, I’m relieved to see that isn’t the case. Sure, there are more exclusive and expensive French lingerie brands, but for normal mortals, Etam lingerie is great.

Forget the rules; there are no rules

Let’s not forget that there are big differences in style and taste among French women too. They aren’t clones with identical thoughts, who follow a rigid set of rules all the time.

French women are like all other women.

Some are cosmopolitan, others are locally oriented. They might be influenced by fashion from abroad, or by a certain group of peers. They have variable budgets, live in areas with different climates and so on.

French women can, of course, have total opposite ideas, views, and experiences.

Care for a few contradictions?

In this collection of quotes, one of the women says French girls don’t wash their hair as much as girls in the United Kingdom. The other says washing your hair every morning is one of those basic French things to do. Go figure.

Another funny “fact” many articles seem to copy from each other is how French women always wear heels when they wear jeans, never flats. Yet here’s the first French fashion blogger interviewed in this post, rocking her jeans and sneakers. Maybe she’s purposely blending in in New York. Either way, things aren’t simply black and white.

Attitude is everything

To the French, being intellectual – philosophical, even – and beautiful aren’t mutually exclusive. In the US, it seems as though you can be either a beauty or a nerd, and those stereotypes run deep. But women aren’t attractive solely due to their measurements or because of what they wear and the French know that.

It’s about not trying too hard. Making it look as though things kind of came together effortlessly, even when it took a while to plan and prep the look. Looking delightfully undone instead of too polished.

Almost as though… she fell into her clothes. Straight out of bed? Possibly. A shared bed? Potentially. We’ll just have to settle on that remaining a mystery. She’s got more important things to be concerned with than your opinion, anyway. (French arrogance, anyone…?)

There you have it. The recurring thread among how women describe the essence of French style. The most crucial item of any capsule wardrobe – French or not – is a piece other than clothing.

The French expression “je ne sais quoi” is spot-on: that vibe you don’t really know how to describe, even though it’s undeniably present. In an attempt to lift the veil, here are a few noteworthy quotes.

French wardrobe quotes from a model, a designer, and a stylist

… the way you mix the clothes and how you move, how you open your bag, how you cross your legs — just little things that make a difference. With French women you first see the woman and then you see the clothes. (Carine Roitfeld)

… it’s mainly that French girls pass a lot of time pretending like they’re not paying attention, while they’re doing just that. It’s more a question of attitude. Always keep them surprised. (Isabel Marant)

I think French girls pretend to be lazy when it comes to style. She’s not going to admit that she spends 50 minutes getting ready. She needs to look effortless, like ‘oh my hair is naturally like this,’ when in fact, she uses hair product and styling tools. She’ll look as though she just kissed her boyfriend, but really, she dabbed her lipstick on with a finger. We love to look like everything is completely natural. (Camille Seydoux)


Reading list & Sources

How 14 French Women Define French Style

The main takeaway is that French style really isn’t about clothes at all, or you could say it’s about much more than that. As mentioned in these little nuggets of crucial insights from actual French women. (Mainly celebrities, but still.)

Parisian Chic Street Style – Dress Like a French Woman

Only if you fancy all sorts of fashion shoot photographs, with France/Paris as the backdrop. That’s models you’re looking at, dressed and styled by professionals from probably all over the planet – not real French women.

Now if the title of the page were something along the lines of “compilation of beautiful fashion photos shot in France”, that would be dandy. Since instead the title is “… dress like a French woman”, it is misleading and I have to call bullshit. Nice pics, though.

14 fashion ‘faux pas’ that Americans make that French women don’t

Excellent article, stating all the right points and comparing with what American women tend to do differently from the French. One isn’t better than the other, it’s the comparison that’s interesting.

The 7 Style Mistakes French Women Never Make

French fashion bloggers answer the question of what French women would never wear. Not a lot of content here, but a few moderately entertaining pictures and quotes. Heads up: the page is heavily sprinkled with ads for pieces of clothing and footwear that do not necessarily look all that French.