Show up Right – Dressing for Any Occasion
There’s about 20,000 genes in the human body, but I believe French women have 20,0001 – they’re born with the style gene. They’re the Goldilocks of fashion –not overdressed, not under-dressed, just right.
Growing up in Dirt Poor, Texas, the word “fashion” was not part of my lexicon. I was lucky to get a few new things from the discount store at the beginning of the school year, and maybe some hand-me-downs from my cousins before the year was through.
Later, after growing up and moving to Los Angeles, I struggled trying to fit in with a more cosmopolitan crowd. But try as I might, it was painfully obvious to me that I was ill-prepared for life in a city full of actors and models and business moguls.
Even years later, after pouring over fashion magazines, learning all of the top designers and icons of fashion, and emulating their styles as closely as possible, I’d try to get it right, I’d almost get it right … but I would just miss. Many were the times that I showed up for a business meeting under-dressed or to a party overdressed, leaving me feeling like a conspicuous bumpkin, fresh off the turnip truck.
It wasn’t until I really started studying French fashion, French street style, and what makes French women so chic, that I developed my own fashion sense, my own comfort and confidence.
One of my favorite tools for learning about style is Ines de la Fressange’s book, Parisian Chic. A former top fashion model for Chanel, she is the embodiment of elegance, no matter what the occasion. You can click the link here or go to my Marketplace to check it out.
So I’m telling you today that what we’re lacking in French genome, we can make up for by learning a few tricks. It isn’t about money, it isn’t about top designers, and it isn’t about icons. It’s simply about learning a few rules, knowing what works for you, and having a little fun.
Here’s some guidelines to help you show up right for any occasion.
I think Americans take casual way too casually.
Instead of treating casual as a chance to throw on jeans and a T-shirt, take it as an opportunity to have some fun.
There’s nothing wrong with jeans and there’s nothing wrong with T-shirts. But think of how you can elevate it, make it more unique, more you. Think of throwing on an oversized (maybe even a menswear) jacket, cinched with a wide belt. Add a statement necklace, or stack on some cuff bracelets (one or the other, not both).
Juxtapose a pair of jeans with a great pair of heels, or a delicate, flowing skirt with a denim jacket and a pair of Converse sneakers. Wear a fun graphic T-shirt and jacket, or oversized sweater or sweatshirt, with a flowing skirt and motorcycle boots.
Casual can be a great opportunity to wear fun dresses as well. You don’t want to be overdressed, but it’s fine to be the best dressed.
Business Casual/Smart Casual Attire
Men may be able to wear jeans for business casual, but women should not. If you think that’s unfair, just remember we live in a world where less than 100 years ago women could be arrested for wearing pants.
This is more of a middle-ground situation. Business casual implies that there’s a professional quality to the occasion, even though it may not be strictly business. On the other hand, you don’t want to look stuffy and unapproachable.
Of course you can choose trousers and a button-up shirt, but I think that’s a little boring, don’t you? How about popping the collar ‘80’s style, and adding a statement necklace or scarf? Maybe layer it up with a V-neck sweater over the top in cooler weather, and finish it off with a great unstructured coat or motorcycle jacket to drape over your shoulders like a celebrity.
Nice trousers and a not-too-bulky sweater is a smart looking choice for business casual (always a V-neck for me). Wearing dark colors or monochromatic is always flattering.
Dresses work great, but nothing too conservative or casual. Pair it with flats, or kitten or block heels, to keep it casual.
You’ve heard the saying “dress for the job you want, not for the job you have”? If not, you have now.
Every workplace has its own vibe, from casual to corporate. Even if your workplace is casual, it’s always best to dress at the upper end of the scale; adding accessories, stylish shoes, and following the third-piece rule to make your outfit complete.
For a corporate environment (or special business meeting), a well-fitting suit is a must. Choose tailored jackets paired with a pencil skirt (hitting just below the knee) or trousers, and a blouse that isn’t buttoned up to your eyeballs.
Jewelry should not be flashy – stick to a simple necklace or pearls, or a statement necklace if it isn’t too “blingy”.
Cocktail/Semi-Formal/Black Tie Optional
While these used to mean different things, over the years they’ve become sort of a mash-up.
Cocktail is generally considered a little less formal. This would be more of a “party dress”, something fancier than you would wear to work, with more bling. Dresses should be just above or below the knee.
Slacks or a stylish jumpsuit can be fine for cocktail as well. This is a good opportunity for satin or something with a little shine, topped off with silk or something slightly embellished.
It’s also a great opportunity to wear that “little black dress”, with a strand of pearls and a pair of black stilettos à la Audrey Hepburn.
Consider Semi Formal or Black Tie Optional as a step just below formal. Cocktail length is fine, so is a simple full length dress (but not a full-blown fancy ball gown).
A smart, fitted women’s tuxedo can also be a great option. Consider a sexy lace or silk camisole underneath, or, if the jacket isn’t cut too deeply for class and comfort, wear the jacket as a top.
Black Tie/Formal Attire
The saying used to be, “to the floor or out the door” when it comes to Black Tie, implying you would literally be kicked out for wearing a short dress. This is no longer the case.
It is no longer uncommon to see cocktail length dresses worn to Black Tie functions, but they should be fancier – with maybe some beading or metallic trim to zhush it up.
Unless you’re wearing something quite exceptional in a shorter dress, I still believe full length is the better and safer way to go for Black Tie. This is the occasion to wear your fancy best – interesting necklines, fuller skirts, sequins or beading. To do otherwise disrespects the host and the occasion.
This is the full blown, tux and tails, fancy ball gown event. If you’re invited to one of these, call me.
Some general rules about style –
When in doubt, wear black.
If you feel conspicuous walking out the door, turn around and change.
If you have to wonder if it looks right, don’t wear it.
And most importantly –
Clothes you feel great in are the best clothes of all.
Bonjour! Je suis Kelley
Hi, I’m Kelley – thrower of parties, drinker of wine, and lover of all things French. I hope you enjoy my Lessons in Becoming French!