Susan Heinrich stands in front of a large blue door in Paris. She is wearing classic French pieces, denim, a black blazer and ballet flats.

Creating a French Wardrobe

STYLE

Timeless style inspired by French women and essential pieces for a French-chic wardrobe all your own

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This story could simply list the seven French wardrobe essentials that I have seen French women wear in Paris, while exuding that “je ne sais quoi”— sipping an apéritif on Boulevard Saint-Germain or popping a warm baguette in their perfect tote at the neighborhood boulangerie. Beyond blazers and button-ups, the essence of creating a French wardrobe is knowing that French women follow certain style principles yet create a style that reflects them.

French Style Principles

Building a French Wardrobe

Each of us is unique — our shape, our complexion, and what we feel good in, differs. French women understand this and find the styles that work best for them. Then they invest in quality French wardrobe pieces that can be worn wear season after season. Here are the key pieces. 

Jump to more detail on the

French Wardrobe Essentials

For those of us who aren’t French, following the style principles that French women follow enables us to wear classic pieces and still create a French style that is uniquely ours. And isn’t that the fun of fashion? Using it to express ourselves in a way that feels creative and authentic to who we are.   

Susan Heinrich in front of the Sézane store in Le Marais. She is holding a small Sézane bag and wearing a black blazer, jeans and loafers.

A little more on the five principles of French style:

1. French Women Ignore Trends

French women know that style is not synonymous with the latest trends. The odd trendy piece is fun, but French women think of those as accents to a thoughtfully curated wardrobe of classics.  Rather than think about what’s in right now, think about what’s been in forever.

A woman on a bike in a dress in heels looks chic outside of a Tara Jarmon store in Paris

2. Less is More

French women wear less makeup, less jewelry, less accessories. Just, less. Think simple and minimal when it comes to jewelry for example — small earrings and a bracelet, or a necklace but no earrings.

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 it in product.

Nails 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.

A rack of stylish clothes by Soeur amidst shelves with shoes and bags. Soeur is an affordable French clothing brand from Paris.
French wardrobe pieces in neutral colors, by a favorite Paris designer, Soeur

3. French Women Wear Color and Pattern Sparingly

Unless they participate in Paris fashion week, many French women wear color and pattern as accents, rather than a head-to-toe statement. In cold weather, think a gorgeous silk scarf, or one-tonal item, a blush blouse, a mustard blazer or rust pants. In summer, they may add more color and some pattern, but balance it with neutrals. The exception would be a dress with some pattern, which is nice in summer.

Susan Heinrich sits in a Paris bistro wearing a black top and French tweed trousers

I love neutrals and they are usually what I pack for Paris, but sometimes I want to wear something with some color or pattern. I think the easiest way to do that is to combine the patterned piece with a neutral, and my favorite French style neutral is black. It’s just as appropriate on a hot summer day as it is for a December holiday soirée. White works equally well, especially in warmer weather. 

In the photo above I combined black and pattern. My tweed trousers are by one of my favorite French brands, Soeur. You can see more of my French favorites in: Affordable French Clothing Brands. 

Susan Heinrich sits on the patio at Les Deux Magots in Paris. She is wearing sunglasses, light trousers, a striped button up shirt and sneakers.

4. Practical Footwear is Paris Chic

Un petit quiz: What’s the one thing as important to French woman as looking chic? If you guessed “feeling comfortable” you are practically French.

You will very rarely see French women wear high heels because Paris is a city for walking and has its fair share of cobblestones. Who can walk in heels? I’ve heard Parisians say when they have friends visit from other fashion-focused cities like London, they have to remind them to leave their 4-inch heels at home. If you visit Paris, don’t be surprised to see French women cycling in all sorts of footwear.

What does that mean for us? There are many lovely flat styles that translate into creating great outfits and being comfortable. get creative with flats with pretty embellishments for example. You can find footware inspiration in Best Shoes for Paris

A woman stands looking out a window in the Rodin Museum in Paris. She is wearing red flowy pants, a black leather jacket, and a black beret.

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. Practically speaking, this casual-chic style is often achieved by mixing casual affordable pieces with more tailored items. It’s never about things being overly precious or fancy (except maybe when it comes to handbags).

Feeling good in our clothing, can extend to ourselves; I think that’s the ultimate style lesson we can take from French women. 

French Wardrobe Essential Pieces

Susan Heinrich sits outdoors at a Paris cafe in fall wearing a trench coat, wide-leg jeans and blue pointed-toe flats.

Each of the seven wardrobe essentials with some options for shopping for them, if you are interested. 

A Trench Coat

Paris gets rain in all seasons and a classic trench coat is a French wardrobe essential that works with every outfit.

I am wearing Sézane’s Scott Trench which I bought on my most recent trip to Paris. It’s a little pricey but the quality is incredible compared to several others I tried on. 

I also like Everlane’s Cotton Modern Trench, a classic style. It comes in three colors, a classic beige and check out the Beech. Black is a classic choice, or navy or dark green. A very nice and more affordable option is available at Banana Republic Factory, the Classic Twill Trench.  Banana Republic also has a luxe new version called the Timeless Trench that I just tried on. I especially love the black. So chic! It’s large so size down and note it’s on the heavy side so not ideal for travel. 

A woman stands against a white background. She is wearing dark pants and a light-blue French style oxford shirt by the brand, Toteme. She is carrying a small handbag.

Classic Cotton Button-Up Shirt

I recently saw a photo of the French-style icon Inès de La Fressange in Paris looking simple and chic in white pants and a long-sleeved oxford-style shirt in blue. A classic cotton shirt works year-round and will never go out of style. In spring and summer, it looks great with tailored shorts or a skirt, or can be worn open as a swimsuit cover-up. In the fall, add a pretty scarf and a trench coat. In winter it’s nice under a crewneck sweater. White is of course another French classic. Stripes are another, great in spring and summer.

In fact, the perfect blue shirt was the French wardrobe essential I was missing. Of those I tried, my favorite “affordable” option was Boden’s New Relaxed Cotton Shirt. (I don’t recommend this shirt in white however, reviewers said the color was a bit beige) or the more tailored style, Straight Cotton Shirt. The cotton is wonderful quality, very soft and an ideal weight. And Boden is part of the Better Cotton Initiative, a system that supports more sustainable cotton production. 

Other great options for button-ups are the Everlane Relaxed Oxford and AYR’s the Deep End.

If you have the budget for a designer button-up shirt, I love the Toteme Signature Cotton Shirt. (It’s shown in the color Dawn, above). I found it on sale, so decided to splurge. The fit and fabric are gorgeous. Note, that Toteme is Danish and so the sizing is European (32 is a US 2, 36 is a US 6, 40 is US 10, etc.) Toteme also makes a classic White Poplin Shirt.

Susan Heinrich wears classic French style at a Paris bistro: a black blazer with cream trousers and cream shoes with a black toe cap.
At Bouillon Vavin for dinner in Paris

A Tailored Blazer

A well-made blazer is a French style essential that works with so many things — jeans and trousers during the day, and with a dress in the evening. For that reason, they are great for travel (I always take one with me to Paris). I find black and navy the most versatile. Above, I am wearing a black velvet blazer by Tahari, which worked well for fall. I also have a  J.Crew blazer — it has held up well, and I find it to be quite well-priced. They often have sales of 30% off or more.  Boden also has a wonderful selection of blazers and I love their quality; I own several Boden items. See current Boden blazer styles. And Sezane blazers are beautiful. I especially love their double-breasted styles such as the Christie Jacket.  

My “investment” blazers are by Smythe, a Toronto-based brand that is a favorite of Catherine, Princess of Wales. I also love Veronica Beard blazers. Expensive but they look fantastic. I find these run a little small. 

Susan Heinrich is wearing a camel-colored cardigan from Paris brand, Sezane. She is pictured from the side and also wearing black trousers. The cardigan is button at the back.
Sezane's Classic French Cardigan in Camel

Classic French Cardigan (un gilet)

A well-made cardigan, a gilet in French, will be one of your hardest working French wardrobe basics. 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. I am wearing the Sezane: the Gaspard with the buttons at the black. Classic colors are black, grey, ecru and camel (shown here). The brighter colors are also lovely and would make a nice accent in spring or summer, but I prefer neutral colors to build a French wardrobe.  

Striped Breton Shirts and Sweaters

Striped shirts, known as the Breton or marinière in France, have become a symbol of  Parisian style and a French wardrobe classic. What began as a part of the French navy uniform, was transformed in 1917 when fashion designer Coco Chanel introduced it as a part of her nautical-themed collection. She was inspired by items that working-class people were wearing and saw the marinière shirt as equally stylish and practical. 

A striped marinière can be worn year-round, depending on the style and fabric. I have a striped tee for spring and summer, a long-sleeved striped marinière for spring and fall, and a striped cotton sweater that I wear in three seasons (shown above) — the Leontine Jumper by Paris-based Sezane.

Susan Heinrich wears trousers and a striped t from her spring capsule wardrobe

These are widely available at many price points. The classic French choice is Saint James ‘ Authentic Breton Stripe Shirt. It also comes in a Breton Men’s (Unisex) that is considered a “Boyfriend” fit for women. 

I also like The Malibu by Kule, made in Portugal of lightweight cotton, and one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in  2022. It comes in a few color combinations: the cream and navy is the classic choice. J. Crew also stocks various affordable styles: Classic Boatneck in Stripe.

Susan Heinrich sits at a wooden café table in Cyprus, Europe on a cobblestone laneway. She is wearing a navy short-sleeved shirtdress and gold Birkenstock sandals and sunglasses. There is an iced coffee on the table as well as a small pot of lavender.

A Shirtdress

A shirtdress is so versatile. It can be worn day or evening with boots or flats, and you’ll always look put together. It’s universally flattering and comfy; it accents our waist and flows easily over the hips. And for many of us, a little coverage on our arms is also welcome.

I am wearing a J.Crew linen shirtdress (above) from last season. This Linen-Blend Midi Dress from the Gap is similar. Here’s another I love from COS. They make great basics, and the quality is solid for the price: COS Waisted Midi Shirtdress.  And if you want to splurge, the Rory by Frank & Eileen is beautiful. 

Susan Heinrich sits in Paris Bouillon restaurant on a velvet banquette with a large mirror behind her and lights reflected. The floor is a traditional tile. She is wearing a black blazer, jeans, a blue button-up and block-heel shoes by Vivaia, cream with a black toe-cap.
Classic French denim can be dressed up for dinner

Classic French Denim

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, tees and blazers, for years to come.  In summer, you could go with lighter denim, but not with holes or rips.

I like the denim at Everlane; they have a great variety of styles and are well-priced and they have a comprehensive guide to their styles: wide, curvy, straight, relaxed etc. I also really like the denim at Reformation — I own two trouser-style pairs (pictured above). My current favorite that is similar is the Val 90s Mid Rise Wide Leg in the color Burnside. 

That said, I find it can be a challenge to shop for jeans online. If you are the same, my advice is to go into a store with lots of styles and try them on. I like Madewell a lot. They typically have a wide selection of styles and they are more reasonably priced than “designer denim” and they often have sales. I love a slightly wide-leg and a trouser-style jean because it is easy to dress it up.

A woman's feet pictured in black French-style loafers on a tiled floor with the words: Monoprix Champs Élysées in decorative tile. Visible are her legs with blue denim and a beige trench coat. She is in Paris.

French Loafers

If you had to pick one pair of shoes as a French wardrobe essential, shoes that are chic, comfortable and versatile, I think it’s a classic loafer. I wear them often at home and they are the first pair of shoes I pack for every trip to Paris, and usually the ones I wear the most. 

Pictured above, my loafers are by Monoprix, an affordable French department store. Sam Edelman makes a nice pair , the Loraine, available in many colors.  I like the brand Cole Haan for stylish, affordable shoes and own several pairs. They have a cute penny loafer style, the Lux Pinch Penny LoaferAnother brand that is supposed to be very comfy is the Birdie’s Vesper. I don’t own Birdie’s but reviews are very good. I love the chic simplicity, and they are well-priced. 

If you happen to be shopping for loafers in Paris, the French brand Bobbies has a gorgeous style called the Jill. They come in several colors.  I love “chai latte” for spring.

Roses and greenery and a woman's lower legs in cropped jeans and a pair of pink and black French ballet flats by Cole Haan.

Ballet Flats

Ballet flats are a timeless and practical French wardrobe staple. Since Karl Lagerfeld debuted the Chanel two-toned beauty almost 40 years ago, French women have worn them religiously, with everything from jeans to dresses and trousers. I wear ballet flats on every trip to Paris (except the dead of winter). I love that they are lightweight and comfy, the most practical shoe to pack. 

I suggest ballet flats with some structure and arch support. In the above photo I am wearing a favorite pair of Cole Haan ballet flats from a few years ago. They are similar in color to the classic by Chanel, with a black cap toe. Here are two similar options: Tory Burch Cap Toe Ballet and Tuckernuck Camille Cap Toe Flats.

On my wishlist is The Demi Flat by Margaux New York (I love the navy). They are handmade in Spain, very comfy and beautifully made. I tried them on a trip to New York but didn’t purchase them because I didn’t want to carry extra shoes around all day — I wish I had. 

A couple other chic and affordable options are the Day Ballet Flat by Everlane or the Anelise Ballet Flat by Madewell (black only).  

Susan Heinrich and two women friends sit at a table in a bistro in Paris. There is bread and some other food in the table.
With friends on a trip to Paris in fall of 2022; each of us dressed in our own version of French style

I hope these French wardrobe ideas have inspired you to both work with what you have, and invest in some classic 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, anyone can embrace the French way of dressing, and do it in a way that feels uniquely our own. 

À Bientôt! (See you soon)

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Packing for Paris with French Wardrobe Pieces

A capsule wardrobe for spring starts with a neutral palette of navy and white. Pictured are a flat lay of navy blazer, denim jeans, blue and white scarf, white shirt, navy cotton cardigan sweater, striped sweater and striped mariniere tee shirt.

There’s an added bonus to looking chic in a French-style wardrobe: these pieces are great for travel because they are so versatile. When packing for Paris I start with a neutral palette, such as navy and white, and add perhaps one accent color. That allows me to pack lighter for a trip to France, or anywhere else, because I can mix and match my French wardrobe items to create multiple outfits (known as a capsule wardrobe). 

If you want to learn more, I created both an Autumn Capsule Wardrobe and Spring Capsule Wardrobe, both great for travel.

And if you struggle with packing as I do, this post offers some packing tips that have helped me: Packing Guide for Overpackers.

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About - Midlife Globetrotter

Hey there,

I’m glad you’re here. Can we talk about midlife? I reached my late 40’s, realized my kids were growing up, and adventure began calling in a new way: big travel adventures as well as everyday ones. I want Midlife Globetrotter to be a place where we explore how to add a sense of fun, freedom and meaning to these precious years. Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come, and all that’s ahead.

Susan

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