5 French Style Lessons For A Smaller-But-Better Wardrobe

French style inspiration: casual look with dark green jacket and scarf. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

Over the past decade or more, we’ve been awash in articles about French women and their style. When we think of French style, we probably imagine someone who is well-dressed, in classic styles and neutral colors. Attention has been paid to fit and details. While timeless, she also manages to look au courant without trying too hard.

Lip | Scarf (similar) | Bag | Sweater | Pants | Earrings | Jacket | Boots

First, though, a caveat about “French” style. Though I’ve certainly not been immune to the fascination, there’s a reason for the quotation marks. The reality is that style has become much more globalized. And French women are much more diverse in their style choices than what’s represented in articles or Instagram roundups. What’s often presented as “French” style, is really more “Parisian,” and a small subset of les Parisiennes at that. (And yes, any region of the globe will have its share of chic, well-dressed people, though the styles may vary.)

So I’ve come to think of French style as a general aesthetic or framework, with some commonalities across the diverse iterations. But whether or not you are inspired by that particular aesthetic, I think those commonalities are valuable takeaways that can be applied to any wardrobe.

1 – Simplicity

When it’s done well, French/Parisian style looks well-put-together, but never fussy or overdone. There aren’t too many competing focal points. It’s modern without being trendy (though you will see a subtle incorporation of what’s current).

2 – Cohesion

The separates in a French wardrobe can be worn in multiple combinations. And they can be dressed up or down. It’s not true that French women wear only black or neutrals, but neutrals do help create wardrobe cohesion. When they do wear color, it’s usually well-thought-out. Whether color is worn singly as an accent, or in multiples within an outfit, there’s a harmony to it, and often a pattern is used to tie together other colors in the outfit.

3 – Attention To Detail

Even wardrobe basics will have some interesting details that keep them from looking too generic. A sophisticated color or interesting texture. Contrast piping along the edge of a blazer. Multicolored buttons on a shirt. A little bit of fringe on the handbag. Patterned or textured tights.

4 – Emphasis On Quality, Endurance

This ties back to the concepts of Simplicity and Cohesion, but the French style ideal embraces “fewer but better” pieces that can be worn season after season, and combined with newer wardrobe additions without looking dated. Close attention is paid to fabrics and construction. And to whether the piece is in sync with one’s own personal style.

And although fast fashion has made attitudinal inroads in France, there isn’t pressure to look different every day. So if a particular jacket and blouse look great worn together, who cares if family, friends, co-workers have seen you wearing that combination multiple times?

Dix Pour Cent / Call My Agent, a French Netflix series.

One of our favorite French shows is “Dix Pour Cent” (or “Call My Agent” as it’s been titled in English). The characters’ wardrobes are each very different but IMO do reflect of what you’ll see a cross-section of women wearing in Paris. And across episodes within a season (and sometimes across seasons) you’ll see a character wear one piece or look repeatedly.

5 – Personal Style > Trends

While it’s not true that French women pay no attention to trends (they absolutely DO), they incorporate them sparingly, in accordance with personal style and preferences. Same goes for all those “must-have” pieces that we’re always being told that “every” French woman has in her closet. There’s an enviable degree of confidence in knowing what works or doesn’t, what they like or don’t.

Is there a particular style aesthetic that inspires you and helps refine your wardrobe?

Stay in touch.

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  1. Evelyne (je vis en France)
    December 14, 2019 / 4:43 am

    Bravo, c’est très vrai. Votre article reflète exactement la façon de s’habiller à la française. Moderne sans en faire trop. Basique mais avec un brin de fantaisie. L’art de mélanger le classique avec une pièce moderne.
    Intemporel mais pas passe partout car il y a toujours un détail qui rehausse le style et qui en fait un look personnel.
    Susan, vous avez tout compris de la mode “à la française”. Simple et efficace.
    Je suis française. Je vis en province.

  2. Roseanne
    December 14, 2019 / 4:44 am

    Excellent ideas! I have a suggestion for pants that I wear frequently. Sanctuary leggings from Nordstrom. Last year I bought a black/blue/cranberry subtle plaid in XL. That’s a size or two larger than my normal legging size. In the larger size, the leggings fit more like slim trousers. The pants are slim enough to look sharp with a boxy jacket like the one you show, but also have enough ease to wear with shorter sweaters, t-shirts and tucked in blouses. My plaid is no longer available, but Nordstrom has several other patterns on sale now. Macy’s too.

  3. Danna R
    December 14, 2019 / 5:22 am

    Nice post Loved the detail, color and combination of pieces…classic!

  4. Bonnie
    December 14, 2019 / 5:32 am

    Well said Susan,
    visiting Paris over a number of years, I’ve seen less and less of the chic Parisian style., especially on the younger set. But there is still a flair to their dressing that sets them apart from other Europeans. Most often it is the easy way they wear their scarves! And, they always have wonderful looking shoes. Anyway, your ideas here are good for all of us. I’m working on slowly making my clothes closet reflect those ideas

    • December 14, 2019 / 12:39 pm

      I love the article, your explanation is spot on. I spend a lot of time in the countryside in the centre of France and most of the women there look just like the women in a country town in Most western countries, even more frumpiest in a lot of cases. As you say…there are chic women everywhere. Thank you for all your articles. Dee

  5. RoseAG
    December 14, 2019 / 5:34 am

    I’ve watching a couple of French TV shows on Acorn and Prime and it’s been interesting. “Origins” is about an anthropologist, and she’s kind of arty looking. “Balathzar” on Acorn has male lead with a female boss, she. The shows aren’t set in Paris, they’re in the countryside and the characters look pretty ordinary -skinny jeans, rain jackets, scarves.

  6. Myra
    December 14, 2019 / 5:35 am

    So enjoyed your scarf-tying video!! I have been reading your blog for years and it was so nice to see you live, talking!! Merry Christmas!!

  7. Anne
    December 14, 2019 / 5:46 am

    Excellent piece — thanks for pointing out these keys to good fashion that seem innate with the French. Especially the idea of attention to detail, as I have always noted their emphasis on the combining of textures and profiles even more than color. The other thing I always marvel at is that you seldom see French women, or men for that matter, wear things that are too big for them. They wear clothes that fit. In Paris you can no longer spot Americans because they are the only ones in “baskets,” but you can spot them for their baggy clothes.
    LOVE Dix pour Cent! And it has great fashion examples for men as well as women — as you said, a true-to-Paris cross-section. And how about that ultimate fashion accessory, Jean Gabin?

  8. Renate Huebner
    December 14, 2019 / 6:24 am

    Thank you Susan for your blog and ladies that leave the comments!
    There is that special look about French women and not just the clothes. I have always admired their haircuts and hair color. Very classy!
    Love the idea about the Sanctuary leggings!

  9. Elizabeth
    December 14, 2019 / 7:04 am

    Susan, I just watched your scarf video and it is such a help. Please consider doing more DIY videos on various subjects.
    Really enjoyed today’s blog. I have extended family in Paris and their clothing emphasis seems to revolve around simplicity. The women wear their hair short and cut perfectly. Little make-up, well fitting clothes and a smart non bulky handbag or knapsack adds to this simplicity.
    Would you also consider listing the best books on dressing/styling? Bookstores have so many to choose from. Many thanks from a faithful reader of your blog!

  10. Debbie Williams
    December 14, 2019 / 9:37 am

    I thank you and Nordstrom thanks you! I have lots of books on French style and am way behind on applying the principles! You are always an inspiration for me. Joyeux Noel!

  11. Brenda
    December 14, 2019 / 10:27 am

    Thanks for your article, Susan. I am just back from Paris (and Brittany). I have a very tasteful and lovely pink coat and gosh, did I wish for my black coat in Paris – everyone, literally everyone, was wearing black!

  12. Eileen
    December 14, 2019 / 11:24 am

    Thank you. I noticed the same things when visiting Paris, Awareness. They are aware of fit, quality, drape, focal point, and their unique features. So I asked myself, how do I learn “ awareness “ ? This site, is extremely helpful, thanks! I am way more thoughtful about my personal style, since visiting Paris. I don’t find the need to be following trends, or wearing things that don’t suit my shape, or wearing a color that doesn’t enhance me. If I truly want to look nice, I need to be me, not anyone else. I wonder sometimes if we have nothing to wear because, our closets are full of someone else’s styles. You definitely got me thinking…..

  13. December 14, 2019 / 12:10 pm

    Today, I sat at a café on the square after doing the market and people-watched. Carcassonne has no university and, being less expensive than Provence but with the same climate and countryside, is popular with retirees, hence the demographic skews older.
    I saw: A woman with purple hair. A woman I see often whom I think of as Pippi Longstocking and yes, today, she was wearing pigtails in braids and her usual overalls with boots. A woman with white jeans, a tan plaid blazer and an orange sweater tied like a scarf; she is one of the reigning local fashionistas and looked amazing as always. A woman with orange-framed eyeglasses and somewhat orange hair color. A woman in a sky blue coat, under which a red tartan dress peeked out; worn with slim pants. Two women together, both with turquoise accessories; one had a hat/beret that looked like a shag rug/toilet seat cover/turquoise wig…and she looked awesome. A woman with an absolutely fabulous hat (she was exaggerating, though–it was 15 C, or 60 degrees, at 10 a.m.–no need for a winter hat). I see lots of color, but not lots of colors. They pick one and run with it, not usually as the major color (black, white, beige, etc. are still the base) but as an accent. All of the women I mention here were over age 65 and probably more toward 75. The turquoise pair might have been pushing 80.
    But if I had to boil it down, I’d say, never forget a scarf, have great shoes, a great haircut and perfect posture.

    • Ramit
      December 16, 2019 / 10:24 am

      I agree – the posture is key! Very few “french style” articles mention it, but no outfit looks good on a bad posture. If you’ve been brought up to keep a good posture, you should be grateful.

      • Lagatta de Montréal
        December 16, 2019 / 6:52 pm

        That is true, but some people have physical problems with age that make their former impeccable poster impossible.

  14. eveange33
    December 14, 2019 / 12:24 pm

    First time to comment on your blog but this post, in my view, deserves it. French woman here, but not parisian, but living in the suburbs of Paris, the ones that your Fox News said some years ago were forbidden to white people….
    I do think you have perfectly explained what a lot of people around the world are gushing about talking about THE french style: this is in fact a parisian style from some places in Paris. Granted, you also have to know that most tourists in Paris stay and visit the same places, the so called safe called, hence the same parisian style. Paris has 20 arrondissement or burroughs and some very popular. And I am not even talking about the suburbs where there are a lot of stylish people, with less money.
    But you are right that, in the whole, we are trying to take care of our clothes, the way they fit, the colours. I am always so surprised when, in some US fashion forum I read daily, women ask if such and such clothes/shoes/boots are still trendy.
    Sure french people do stick to trends also, the ones that you can find then pretty quickly sold on second hand sites or shops…, but really, I would say that there is no need to read the many so called french style books. One has only to read your blog to better understand.
    I apologise I advance as english is not my mother tongue, please do help me improve my writing and correct my mistakes.

  15. Suzanne
    December 14, 2019 / 12:34 pm

    Love this article and your video! I’ve followed your blog for a long time and especially enjoy seeing how you are working your colors into your wardrobe. I am also a warm season, autumn, and would really like to see you do a post about makeup colors. I have difficulty finding lipsticks that are warm red but not too orange.
    Happy holidays!

  16. December 15, 2019 / 3:45 am

    I loved the Netflix series “Call my Agent”. So accurate as to the way Parisienne women dress. Also very little or no make-up! I have found that French style varies from region to region. In the south the way women dress is much more laid back. In some regions in France the dress code can be quite conservative. I would agree that french women seem to have smaller wardrobes and often quite classic except in St.Tropez when some of the styles are positively Bohemian.

  17. December 15, 2019 / 12:54 pm

    Thank you Susan for this no non sense post about French style. Yes we can’t sum up it in wearing a beret, red lipstick, heels or a stripes tee… It’s about time that these clichés vanish in the cyberspace…. as a French native I humbly try to give some French style clues in my blog and it’s great to read you today. I agree with everything you noticed!

  18. Jan Whichard
    December 15, 2019 / 3:45 pm

    I have begun to wonder why in the heck it has taken me so many many years to start dealing with my clothes/style. Why have a wandered away from what makes me feel like me? Why, other than trying to cover the extra weight I gained (and now have completely lost for over a year) did I buy bags for clothes? Why do I have so much still in my closet and still either struggle about what to wear or go for the same few items of clothing…the ones that make me smile and help me feel easy in my own skin? For the last year I have been having my non trendy more expensive clothes tailored (and even so, some of those may be given away) and stopped buying stuff I know I won’t wear much. I want and need simplicity. A blazer, jeans, boots, a solid color top, minimal jewelry, and a beautiful interesting scarf of fine fabric is my ideal outfit. Time to just be easy. And if I don’t like my hair as it grows out grey…I’ll dye it blue! Susan, I love your blog. And, speaking of minimal nice pieces that can be worn again and again, I just took delivery of 3 Reset satin sleeveless v-neck blouses. Perfection!

  19. Coco
    December 16, 2019 / 7:49 pm

    Best synopsis I’ve seen yet about “French” style!
    -The 5 commonalities are spot on
    -Not all French women dress “French”
    -Not all les Parisiennes dress “French”
    -Not all women who dress “French” style are French

    Would love to see a similar article about French hair and makeup. And accessories!!


  20. December 18, 2019 / 10:59 am

    Love all of your ideas. We go to Provence often and I always find such good ideas from you. You’ve mentioned that the French pay attention to quality and value and I think that is a wonderful idea for all of us. I did learn something recently that I did not know. The French use debit cards instead of credit cards for their purchases, which is somewhat the opposite of the US. Perhaps because they know they have to pay for what they purchase right away rather than on time, they pay more attention to the products they purchase than we in the states tend to do. Anyway, it’s an interesting thought. Again, I love reading your blog and always appreciate your attention to detail.

  21. December 23, 2019 / 12:32 pm

    This is consistent with my experience of over 40 years and I have a few minor observations to add about Parisiennes and other urban women
    – Their jewellery (and they wear it every day, not for “dress’!) is usually real, often fine. If it is costume, it is not trying to imitate real, but is frankly fake and often bold, even on small, fine-boned women.
    – Among adults, leggings are not worn as trousers; they are for loungewear at home, or for exercise. French women past 40 (and eternally up) will show décolletage with enthusiasm, but not their bottoms encased in cotton-lycra.
    – Logos are not sought after (but the French kids like them if they are hip, e.g. Maison Kitsune). As one former fashion writer said, “If you have to show the name of the house plastered on your bag or jacket, what does that say about you? Only that you are insecure.”
    – There is no problem, physical or psychological, that the right cream cannot fix 😉

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