Style guidelines inspired by French women, and essential pieces for a French-chic wardrobe all your own
This story could simply list 10 French style basics, the clothing items that French women often wear while exuding that chic “je ne sais quoi” (I don’t know what) sipping an apéritif on Boulevard Saint-Germain, or shopping at a neighborhood marché. But simply listing the items would be glossing over the essence of French style; yes, French women follow certain style principles, but they also find a way to make them their own.
Each of us is unique – our shape, our complexion, and what we feel best in, differs. French women understand this and so they find the styles and pieces that work best on them and wear those classics, but with a personal flair.
So what does that mean for those of us who want to partake in that effortless French style? It means understanding the style guidelines that French women follow, as well as the classic wardrobe items that are ubiquitously French. With the knowledge, and a few quality pieces, we can each create a version of classic French style, that’s uniquely ours.
With that in mind I am sharing five rules of French style, followed by some French wardrobe essentials. If you’d like to skip the rules, you can jump ahead to the FRENCH WARDROBE ESSENTIALS.
French Style Basics - The Guidelines
1. French Women Ignore Trends
French women know that style is not synonymous with the latest trends. Who can keep up with the changing tides of denim for example. Less important than low-rise, mid-rise or high-rise is learning what styles works for their body type and investing in quality denim that will look great for years to come.
That is good news for all of us who would prefer to invest in classic pieces than try to keep up with trends and buy new (disposable) wardrobe pieces each season. Sure, the odd trendy piece is fun, but French women think of those as accents to an otherwise thoughtfully curated wardrobe of classic pieces. So rather than think about what’s in right now, think about what’s been in forever.
Incidentally, these French style basics are great for travel and capsule wardrobes because they are so versatile.
2. Less is More
French women wear less makeup, less jewelry, less accessories. Just, less. For any of us who aren’t French it may require getting dressed as we usually would and then removing an accessory, or two or three. Think simple and minimal when it comes to jewelry: small earrings and a bracelet, or a necklace but no earrings.
And the same goes for makeup. French women might wear a bright red lip, always chic, but will rarely wear a lot of eyeshadow. Makeup is meant to accentuate natural beauty rather than cover everything in layers of product.
As for nails, they are usually short and you will rarely see a French woman with false nails. They put effort into keeping their own nails well-cared for. They often wear clear or neutral polish. Although red, dark and neutral colors feel French as well.
3. Wear Color and Pattern Sparingly
Unless they are taking part in Paris fashion week, French women wear bright colors and busy patterns as accents rather than a head to toe statement.
Neutrals are trés French and are embraced year-round. Black is just as appropriate on a hot summer day as it is for a December holiday soirée.
I love neutrals and wear them as regularly as a regular Parisian, but sometimes I find pulled to wear something with some color or pattern. I find the easiest way to do it and keep it feeling French chic, is to combine the patterned piece with a neutral, and my favorite neutral for Paris is always black.
In the main photo at the top of this story I combined black wool trousers with a polka dot blouse. And just above, I combined tweed trousers by French brand Soeur with a black top (left). By the way, Soeur is one of my favorite places to shop in Paris. You can learn more about my French favorites in: Affordable French Clothing Brands.
4. French Style & Practical Footwear
Pop quiz: What’s the one thing as important to French woman as looking chic? If you guessed “feeling comfortable” you get a gold star. You will very rarely see French women wear heels because Paris is a city for walking and has its fair share of cobblestones and who can walk in heels? (Apparently Emily in Paris can, but even Lily Collins, the actress who plays Emily in the Netflix series, has said how silly it is that the costume designers dress Emily in heels for her Paris adventures.)
I’ve heard Parisians say when they have friends visit from other cosmopolitan cities like London, they have to remind them to leave their 4-inch heels at home.
There are so many stylish ways to wear flats. For my most recent fall trip to Paris I packed loafers, sneakers and a pair of tall flat boots. It was late September and we had several rainy days so I needed the boots. And I wore my sneakers on repeat! Luckily, sneakers have become a French style basic and you’ll see women wear them all over Paris with every kind of outfit.
If you must wear something with height consider a wedge heel or a bootie with a block heel. And don’t be surprised to see French women cycling in all sorts of footwear.
5. The Golden Rule of French Style
The style secret of French women seems to be that feeling comfortable, literally and figuratively is at the heart of how they dress. That means feeling good in your clothes as well as in your skin, with items that are well-made, flattering, and comfortable. After all, at its heart fashion should be a way to express yourself. This casual chic style is often achieved by mixing more casual pieces with dressier items. It’s never about things being overly precious or fancy. Feeling good in our clothing is the ultimate style lesson we can take from French women.
Some French-Wardrobe Basics
A Trench Coat
A classic trench coat is a timeless French classic. I am wearing a Tory Burch trench just outside Le Nemours in Paris. I like the simple silhouette of a mid-length, single-breasted trench, but I would actually love to buy a double-breasted trench with a tie; that may be what I next invest in. Whatever the style, choose one you feel great in. If you don’t love a lighter colored trench, black is a classic choice.
A well-made cardigan, a gilet in French, will be one of your hardest working style essentials. It can be layered over a t-shirt or button-up, or worn on its own. Tucked or untucked, I wear them with denim, trousers, skirts and dresses. This one is by Sezane: the Gaspard and also works with the buttons at the black. Classic colors are black, grey and camel (shown here).
Tailored Blazer in Black or other Neutral
I always take a classic cut blazer with me to Paris. Regardless of the season, it’s a French essential that works with so many things, jeans and trousers during the day and with a dress in evening. I find black the most versatile; here I am wearing a black velvet blazer by Tahari, which worked beautifully for fall.
A Black Shirt Dress
I recently bought this black dress from Sezane and haven’t yet captured a photo, a reason for another trip to Paris, no? A dress like this is so versatile. It can be worn day or evening, with boots of flats, and you’ll always look put together. I noticed on my latest trip that many French women wear tights in fall, even on warmish days.
As of now this dress, The Lauretta, is sold out in black, but there are other styles available at Sezane such as this short-sleeved version: The Jeanette. Any black dress that is flattering on you is a perfect French classic to add to your wardrobe.
You may already own the perfect pair of jeans to embrace French style, so have a look in your closet. Since French women don’t jump on denim trends they most often wear straight or trouser-style jeans in a medium or dark wash. No ultra skinny, extra faded or ripped jeans. As with everything else, French-style denim is classic style which will allow you to mix it endlessly with a combination of sweaters, shirts and blazers.
If you had to pick one pair of shoes as a French style basic, shoes that are both chic and comfortable, it’s a pair of classic loafers. They are the first pair of shoes I pack for every trip to Paris and usually the ones I wear the most.
These loafers are by Monoprix, a French department store. Sam Edelman makes a similar pair. Black is the classic choice although navy are pretty as well.
I hope these French style basics and guidelines have inspired you to both work with what you have, and invest in some classic French wardrobe pieces that you will feel good in for years to come. Whether it’s for a dream trip to Paris or because you are tired of buying mediocre clothes that don’t last, we can all be inspired by French women to embrace a way of dressing that feels both timeless and uniquely our own.