Epiphanies come from all sorts of significant and spiritually moving events – births, deaths, stuff like that. Mine comes from The Devil Wears Prada. Well, at least my fashion epiphany. Well, one of them.
The movie is chocolate and wine and coffee and croissants all rolled into one. We watch Andi (Anne Hathaway) transition from her I’m-too-intelligent-to-care-about-fashion attitude, to becoming deeply submerged in an over-abundance and over-significance of fashion and haute couture, to eventually emerge as a well-balanced, well-dressed, confident woman.
But there’s one scene that was transformational for me, and I’ll bet you can guess which one it is … the cerulean blue sweater.
Remember? It’s the one where Andi’s boss, Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), contemptuously educates Andi that her “lumpy blue sweater” is not some casual happenstance, but rather it was born out of years of talented designers evolving colors and textures.
And my epiphany was this – that the key elements of fashion exist in many different styles, designs, and cuts. That the extraordinary works of Oscar de la Renta and Yves St. Laurent can be devolved into a “lumpy blue sweater.” That the important thing is that what you wear is doing something for you. And that the bottom line is, if it doesn’t flatter you, don’t wear it.
I think that’s biggest reason why French women look so attractive and so, well, French. The French woman is keenly aware of what works for her, and she wears only that. She knows her own fashion “rules”. That’s what keeps her from becoming a “slave to fashion”.
The French woman wears the clothes – the clothes don’t wear her. There is a classic simplicity that never goes out of style – neither under nor, God forbid, over dressed (as Coco Chanel famously said, “before you walk out the door, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” Except she said it in French.)
The important question is – “what is this (sweater, jacket, dress, pants, etc.) doing for my body?” Is the length elongating you and making you look lean, or making you look a bit squat? Is the top adding shape and accentuating your best assets, or is it making you look boxy?
While not French, Kathrine Hepburn is a great example of someone who followed her own fashion rules. At the age of 9, she had her head shaved and wore her brother’s clothes. In the 1930’s, she dared to dress in trousers, and this was at a time when women could be arrested for doing so (yeah, seriously). She never wore print blouses, which would detract from her face, and rocked a menswear shirt like nobody’s business.
Okay, so let’s fine-tune this thing for you by getting down to some details …
What neckline flatters you?
Because it’s just below your face, the thing people look at the most, the right neckline to flatter you is most important. I’ve passed up many a piece I loved, only because it had the wrong neckline. For me.
For me, it’s a V-neck or boat neck, maybe a scoop neck but never a crew neck. A V-neck is universally flattering. It tends to add length, especially for vertically-challenged women such as myself. A boat neck widens the shoulders, which slims the hips.
A turtleneck can be flattering, particularly on women with longer necks. But it can emphasize a shorter neck and give you sort of a “floating head” effect.
Women with firm necks and great skin can look terrific in a square or sweetheart neckline. Corollary to this, if you don’t have a great neck, this is not your neckline.
What sleeve length looks best on you?
Here’s the great thing about sleeves, you can roll ’em up, you can roll ’em down. So let’s put them where they’re just right.
When you want to exert your right to bare arms, sleeveless is generally preferred over a cap sleeve. It works if you have slender arms, but if your arms are a little heavy a cap sleeve will hit you right across the heaviest part of your arm, drawing attention to it. That’s not good.
A halter top or racer back cut widens the shoulder, which can be quite flattering unless you’ve got shoulders like a line backer.
A half-sleeve, I believe, is a sleeve with an identity crises. It’s not a short sleeve, it’s not a long sleeve, and it’s just not particularly flattering. But they can be rolled up to just above the bicep for a sort of James Dean rebel look.
The 3/4 sleeve is the most universally flattering length, and you’ll often see French women with their white menswear shirt, trench coat or leather jacket sleeves pushed or rolled up to this length.
What waistline should you wear?
Generally, you want to emphasize the smallest part … makes sense, right?
If you’re thicker through the middle, an empire waist is a good choice. If you have an hour-glass figure, look for styles that emphasize the natural waist. A more slender, boyish figure will do great with a drop-waist or belt around the hips.
What about pants and skirts?
This is where as little as a half-inch can make a world of difference, so spend the few dollars to get them hemmed properly (or do it yourself.) A skirt that’s a little too long can be frumpy. Too short can look whore-y. And, as Dorothy Parker said, “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think.”
The most universally flattering skirt length is just below or just above the knee. As with the waistline, you want to emphasize the narrowest part of your leg. Mini skirts usually hit at the widest part of your thigh, so unless you’re young and slender you should avoid those (or wear them with matching colored tights to lengthen the line). A midi skirt (or cropped pant, for that matter) is a bit tricky because it can hit the widest part of your calf, so aim for just above or below that widest point.
Not a skirt person? Stick to pants. Your comfort and confidence are more attractive than any piece of wardrobe you’ll ever put on. As Chanel model and style icon Ines de la Fressange has said, “If you don’t feel comfortable in a plunging sweater, skin-tight jeans and killer heels, go home and change.” But she probably said that in French too. The point is, nothing looks better than feeling confident or worse than feeling conspicuous.
For pant length, ankle pants, as the name implies, should hit just above the ankle, not at or below. A classic trouser will give you that “legs forever” look when they’re hemmed so that only the toe of your shoe is showing. And unless you’re stick thin, Capri pants are just wrong.
What shoes match your fashion style and your lifestyle?
Life’s too short to wear ugly shoes. Your shoes are sort of the point on the exclamation point, so you don’t want to minimize their overall effect.
If you’re a fan of comfort, you’ve got some great options – loafers or ballet flats, boots or fashion sneakers (no gym shoes or flip-flops in public, thank you).
A little heel will minimize your hips, not just because they elevate you, but also because, when we wear heels, we move our hips forward to compensate for balance and sort of tighten everything up. A square or wedge heel is ideal for giving that bit of lift without the discomfort of stilettos.
Never wear a shoe that you can’t walk gracefully in, and don’t try on new shoes (especially heels) in the morning. When you put them on to go out in the evening, your feet will have swollen and you’ll be looking for the nearest champagne bucket to stick your feet in.
Prints, patterns, or solids?
Speaking as a French girl (since I’m French on the inside, where it counts), we don’t wear a lot of prints outside of the Breton striped top. French women tend to wear a lot of head to toe neutral or black, which creates a slender and sophisticated line. When prints are worn, they are usually on the smaller, more subtle side, and may be topped with a jacket.
That said, if prints are your thing then print it up, but choose what looks best on you. Consider scale, stay away from large prints if you’re short, and be aware of what part of your body you’re emphasizing.
I hope this helps you start to figure out some of your own fashion rules. Soon you’ll become very opinionated and “French” about what you will and will not wear. After all, you’re the boss.
Photo fashion by Justin Proctor