Your Step-By-Step Guide to French Style
Regarding French style, Coco Chanel famously said that before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off. But that’s assuming you put a few things on.
When I was young I loved playing dress-up, putting on grown-up dresses that dragged on the floor, a mish-mash of cheap, colorful beads, and high heels that had to be shuffled across the floor to avoid tumbling face first out of them and winding up with a fat lip. I still love playing dress up, but I’ve gotten much better at it, especially the walking in heels part, and I now use a bit of moderation.
My husband sometimes calls me “French Fashion Police to the World”. It’s not that I’m hyper-critical, I swear I’m not. I just have a good eye for missed opportunities. Here are a few tips to step up your game and go from just wearing clothes to putting together an outfit.
You don’t need a massive wardrobe, just great basics.
I gave myself this crazy challenge at the first of the year: to go an entire year without buying clothes. I permitted myself to buy shoes (I’m not totally insane) and accessories. I came to this resolution after going through my closet at the end of the year and noticing the number of things I’d worn only once or twice, and even a few things with the tags still on.
I made it 6 months before falling off the wagon, but an unexpected trip came up and so it’s not entirely my fault, right? I’m back on the wagon again. For now.
What I realized is that, if you have great basics, you really don’t need a whole lot else to be prepared for any occasion.
Here are the outfit-building basics:
- A few pants that fit great, in different cuts (straight leg, trousers, black is a must),
- Jeans in a couple of different styles that really flatter you,
- A pencil skirt and maybe a few simple dresses (a wrap dress looks good on virtually everyone),
- A basic white shirt, silk blouses and camisoles and some relaxed fitting cotton T’s,
- A few jackets and sweaters for layering, and of course
- A little black dress.
When it comes to wardrobe basics, fit and fabric are the secret sauce, the Miracle Max, the magic feather. Good, well-made and well-fitting basics will last for years.
Proportion is critical. It’s a little unfair, men can hem all their pants to the same length but women generally have to make a shoe commitment before getting hemmed. The exception is a skinny pant, which should hit just above the ankle, but is not the best choice for all women. If you are heavier in the hips and thighs, a straight or wide leg is a better choice.
Jackets and blouses should hit at a flattering length for your body. not cutting across and accentuating your widest part. If you’ve got a bit of a tummy pooch, a curved hem that falls below the tummy is most flattering, or tuck in with a pair of soft, flow-y trousers. If you’re a bit wider in the hips and thighs, a mid-thigh length jacket or tunic will be a better fit for you.
The most universally flattering skirt length is just above or just below the knee. Even a half inch in the wrong direction can take a skirt from fabulous to frumpy or overly flirty.
Use stripes to your advantage. That horizontal striped Breton T is great for emphasizing your top half and minimizing your bottom half (the French know what they’re doing).
A tuxedo pant, or any pant with a vertical line, adds height and diminishes weight on your bottom half. For legs that go on forever, wear a flared leg and hem them so they just almost touch the floor (based on whatever shoe you commit to – urrgghh).
Follow the third-piece rule.
A jacket, coat, or cardigan gives an outfit a finished look, plus you’re prepared for climate change. A leather jacket, a trench coat or a black tuxedo jacket, three wardrobe staples, can go over almost anything (that’s why they’re staples). A sweater can be layered over a camisole or blouse and casually thrown around your shoulders if it gets too warm.
You can have fun with multiple layers too. A jacket over a cardigan over a blouse over a cami; a hooded sweater under a denim or leather jacket (pull the hood out the back). Just be aware of volume so you don’t end up looking like the Michelin Man.
Belt the right spots.
Belts are more than a way to keep your pants up, they’re a great way to add detail. But you have to use them to your advantage.
Get rid of that little string of fabric they generously call a “self-belt” and replace it with a nice leather belt or even a silk scarf.
Don’t put lines across your worst spot. A belt draws emphasis, so use it on what you want to emphasize – a small waist, narrow hips.
Belts can be great to cinch up a coat or jacket too, just be sure the fabric isn’t too bulky to avoid the “busted can of biscuits” effect.
The right shoes for the job.
Never sacrifice your sashay for a pair of high heels. I attend quite a few formal and semi-formal functions every year and it hurts my heart to see lovely women who have put real effort into putting together a nice outfit, wearing shoes they can’t walk in without looking like they’re stepping through a minefield of jellyfish.
I don’t care how pretty they are, if you can’t float through the room with your happy face on the outside (even if you’re grimacing ever so slightly on the inside), or if you’re looking for the nearest champagne bucket to stick your feet into, choose a different shoe.
I love wearing heels – the way they sort of move your hips forward and create that smooth, beautiful line from waist to floor. But let’s get real – we can only tolerate that kind of torture for so many hours. If you’re going to an event where you’ll be on your feet for hours, or if you just can’t stand fully upright and move gracefully, opt for flats even with formalwear. Nordstrom and other better retailers have beautiful selections of evening flats which come in a range from $90 ballet flats or jeweled sandals to $900 for drool-worthy Manolo’s or Valentino’s, so there’s something for everyone.
For casual shoes, there are so many comfortable choices – loafers, oxfords, fashion sneakers (a.k.a. Converse or Ben Simone, the French girl’s sneakers of choice). But please – No. Gym. Shoes. Let your motto be Just DON’T Do It. Unless you’re exercising. Exercising in heels is just stupid. Unless you’re dancing. Okay that’s enough.
Yes, French women do wear scarves. A lot. Some stereotypes exist for a reason.
You can wear scarves in endless ways, not only wrapped around your neck but also as a headband, a sarong around the hips of your dress or slacks, or as a belt as I mentioned earlier (if you wear a scarf as a belt, don’t wear another one around your neck – too much of a good thing is still too much). You can even fold a large scarf on the diagonal and tie it as a halter top under a jacket, or criss-cross the corners of a large rectangle behind your neck and wear it as a swimsuit cover up.
You can Google up some great tutorials on how to wear scarves, and it’s worth it to splurge on a few really great scarves – you’ll have them your whole life and pass them along to your prodigy (who may sell them on eBay as vintage for twice what you paid, but that’s another story). But it’s fine too, to buy a selection of inexpensive scarves to switch up your wardrobe looks.
French women don’t wear excessive jewelry. A French woman would not wear a big necklace with big earrings and big bracelets. That’s not to say that you can’t layer a few necklaces or bangles. It just should be balanced with your outfit, sort of “all of a piece”.
Don’t forget your handbag as a fashion accessory. Most of us have that sort of functional bag that runs out the door with us on a moment’s notice. But sometimes taking a moment to switch to a small, pop-of-color bag or a straw clutch can be the perfect accent to a basic outfit.
French girl style includes looking like you didn’t fuss too much (even though you did) and you look this amazing. The end result is a casual sort of “I threw this together and WOW!”, but the truth is there’s more thought to it than meets the eye.
The bottom line, just get in your closet and play dress-up. Don’t stop until it’s fabulous. Then, take one thing off.
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!