Borrowing Concepts From A "French Wardobe"

encore: the “French wardrobe”…is it real, is it relevant ?

French wardrobe

A mostly American version of a “French” wardrobe…

earrings | scarves here and here | watch | striped tee | ivory blouse | jacket | jeans | black pants |
boots | loafers | bags here and here

>>This week has turned out to be much busier than I’d anticipated, so while I buy myself a little time to polish up the posts originally scheduled, here’s an encore of a favorite from last year.

When I surf around on Pinterest for any amount of time (or any style-oriented websites for that matter), it’s hard not to notice how often various images and concepts of a “French Wardrobe” or “5 Pieces Every Parisian Girl Owns” type pins/articles keep populating my screen. Perhaps this is due to the nature of style-focused content, but it’s interesting to me how much this concept seems to resonate with a large audience.

Almost always included in these sets would be:

  • a Breton striped shirt
  • a trench coat
  • an LBD
  • skinny jeans and/or pants
  • a black leather jacket
  • black stiletto heels
  • a white blouse and/or tee shirts
  • a blazer
  • everything black, white, navy, grey

Which are mostly the same classic items that make up those “[fill in number here] Items Every Woman Should Own” lists by popular style gurus. Here’s the thing, though: while building a wardrobe foundation of basics is essential to creating wardrobe cohesion (and makes getting dressed in the morning easier), we shouldn’t feel the need to hew to a list that may or may not reflect our style or make sense for our lifestyle. Even (especially?) French women aren’t a monolith when it comes to style. Some are classic, some more bohemian, some stick to neutrals, some wear color (and lots of it), some wear more structured shapes and some prefer softer silhouettes…etcetera. Some wouldn’t be caught dead in a striped shirt. 😉

So even if we leave “French” out of the equation, what is it about these pieces and ensembles that so many find appealing? First, I think there’s the glamour and association with some of the most often cited style icons. Brigitte Bardot and the mariniére, Chanel and the LBD, Ingrid Bergman and a trench coat, Audrey Hepburn in the slim black pants, Katherine Hepburn in a white shirt and menswear blazer. The garments themselves are regarded as “iconic” even if shapes and silhouettes shift from decade to decade, and there’s appeal in that timelessness which forms a sort of common style language. Then there’s the ideal and siren’s call of simplicity, of those few perfect pieces that are always appropriate and eliminate that “nothing to wear” scramble.

With any style formula interpreted too literally, one loses one’s own voice and individuality. There’s nothing wrong with including “iconic” pieces in your own wardrobe as long as they express your style, but trying to limit a wardrobe to only those pieces can result in a cloned and soulless look. Again, I keep circling back to the idea of wardrobe cohesion, of building that basic foundation first of pieces that all play well together, and then adding the elements that liven up and enrich your basics and express your unique viewpoint. For most of us, it’s going to make the most sense to bring some element of season-spanning timelessness to those core pieces. While very few garments are truly “timeless” (over time, updating or alterations need to be done to keep from looking dated) building a wardrobe is not usually a one-season proposition, and your basics should carry your wardrobe for years rather than months.

Ultimately, I think the value lies in looking at these wardrobes or lists as a starting point, rather than a comprehensive wardrobe to aspire to.

What clothing items are “iconic” to you? Do you incorporate them into your core wardrobe?

Instant polish: just add jacket….


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  1. February 10, 2016 / 4:26 am

    I love the striped shirts, but they often make me look too wide. It really is important to try them on and get a good fit. I really like this look.

  2. Susan D.
    February 10, 2016 / 5:26 am

    I’ve purchased TWO striped shirts for this spring—both from J. Crew–which is unusual for me. One is sort of loose and very casual, the other is ore of a smart casual look. Hopefully, I will enjoy wearing both of them. One if J. Crew brand the other is Saint James made for J. Crew.

  3. February 10, 2016 / 6:44 am

    I’m glad that you revisited this post because it is, once again, giving me food for thought on that “French Wardrobe”. I spent a lot of time in France–dividing time between Paris and Theoule-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur. In all the years, I’ve been there, the only single person I know who wears the striped Breton shirts is my better half’s dad–he lives in St. Tropez and it is Dany’s “uniform”–he’s an artist and his iconic wardrobe consists of the striped shirt, khaki cropped pants, Rondini sandals and his little cap. All the women in his family have their own style–casually elegant and they wear what is comfortable for them. Honest to god, during “rush” hour in Paris, most of the women I see are dressed so casually that it borders on almost sloppy. My Frenchman told me that women dress more in Paris to go out–not to go to work and the men dress better for the office. He’s right. Those Frenchman look fantastic in those suits that, if they were just a bit tighter would be too small–but the suits just fit. Now, in the government areas the women dress pretty much the same as corporate women do here. Black suit, white shirt–but the French women have better shoes. To see that stereotypical French chicness, I suggest a visit to Avenue Foch. My apologies because I’m rambling and once I get fixated it’s hard to stop………..
    Anyway, MY iconic wardrobe staple is the white fitted t shirt from Old Navy. At five bucks a pop, they are the great staple. I size down because I like a very fitted look–especially under a blazer. I’m also pretty-much of a neutral person. Black, navy, white–with red thrown in for good measure. My most colorful accessory is a bright Hermes scarf. I’m not much on accessories.
    Thanks for a great post!

    • MarieP
      February 11, 2016 / 4:23 pm

      Could there ever be a better accessory than a bright Hermes scarf?!?

      • Susan
        February 12, 2016 / 4:58 am

        I have a collection of Hermes scarves from a past life, but I only see Hermes scarves worn by young women (usually Asian, who look chic and fabulous) or women in their 70s. Oops, nearly forgot the Queen who is 90. I haven’t been to Paris for a few years, so I am not sure if women in their 50s (my age) actually wear Hermes scarves.

        • MarieP
          February 12, 2016 / 4:12 pm

          I’m 43 and I love me an Hermes scarf tied, draped, or tossed around my neck. The more light-hearted and “oh, this old thing; I’ve had it forever!”, the better!

        • February 14, 2016 / 8:25 am

          I’ve seen women of all ages wearing the Hermes scarfs out and about through Paris and NYC. My better half’s aunt used to tie her wheeled laundry cart to the wall with Hermes ribbons-she seemed to have a steady supply from all her purchases. I always got a kick out of that!

  4. sybes1
    February 10, 2016 / 7:37 am

    Susan this is such a great article. I think what I love about the ‘look’ of French women is their classic elegance along with their focus on looking ‘effortless’ and ‘natural’. It’s taken me my lifetime to figure out what I can wear for my body type and what makes me feel comfortable emotionally and physically as well. So out the door with some of those ‘must haves’! I have to say that you have made shopping easier for me and for that I am profoundly grateful. I don’t know that I will ever have an iconic look like The Greats but at least I can have a style that suits me.

  5. Linda
    February 10, 2016 / 12:41 pm

    Sadly, I think I’m done with jeans until “skinny” goes away. They just do not feel good on my 63-year-old body (am I the only one? I don’t feel like my body’s that weird). Judging by how long-standing they have now been, I guess the skinny is indeed not going away. And the made-for-older-women brands like NYDJ I find even more restricting and uncomfortable. Dressing without the versatility of denim is a challenge in my casual life. Unlike black pants, denim goes with everything. I miss my jeans! Apart from that I really like and can wear all other items you have pictured above, Susan. For Paris or my own little town, Chicago. Lovely collection!

    • Pixie
      February 11, 2016 / 5:24 am

      I know what you mean about skinny jeans. I have always bought narrow straight leg jeans in a dark wash. However, I recently bought boot legs (remember them?) as my nod to the 70s without wearing flares. I suggest you wear what you are comfortable in and suit your body shape – just don’t wear the ripped jean!

  6. michaela mcmanus
    February 10, 2016 / 12:55 pm

    I realized I can’t do without a flattering black top with short sleeves. I have spent more than I usually would on one I had shortened to wear over pencil skirts and one longer one for over pants. The tops have slight gathers in the front so they skim the body without looking baggy and they aren’t clingy.
    I came to this realization when I panicked when I lost one of these tops and realized this is my “go to” for over pencil skirts. I have many other black tops which I never actually wear as they show every bulge or they are too baggy.
    I have a big midriff and have no problem with tunics over skinny pants, tailored shorts over jeans etc but a flattering top to go over skirts is really hard to find!
    Don’t you find you actually wear the same things over and over again when they suit you? You don’t need lots of clothes, just the right clothes for the occasion.


    • Nancy
      June 14, 2016 / 3:55 am

      any chance you could like to an example of the type of tops you are referring to?

    • Rachel
      June 14, 2016 / 5:11 am

      I would love to see an example as well…my midriff thanks you!

  7. Pink Azalea
    February 10, 2016 / 1:44 pm

    Good post. I agree – these lists are just a starting point. I like well-cut pants, a few tops that can stand alone, casual jackets, and a few dresses that span a couple of seasons. Rather than a list, I want clothes for the life I live – museum docent, board member, wife, and grandmother to young children. Like many people, I dress casually almost all the time. That said, I like to look put together and without looking like I tried too hard. When I shop, the words I keep in mind are simplicity, elegance, and refinement. I think even a simple grey t-shirt and a pair of white jeans can look sophisticated. It’s all in the fit and styling details. Those Gucci loafers you showed recently would add chic to any simple outfit. I love your blog and the comments of your readers. I feel reassured to find so many kindred spirits.

  8. Maite
    February 11, 2016 / 12:30 am

    Brigitte Bardot also wore a pink gingham (vichy) dress with a very fitted waist and pouffy skirt but I never see that in the iconic wardrobe pieces. Just saying…

  9. Sue Bowdler
    February 11, 2016 / 1:30 am

    I would add a grey or navy v-neck fine knit jumper, over slim, straight cut jeans as my go to outfit. Think Charlotte Rampling, all casual elegance and understatement. I wish! But I can aspire….
    Cannot live without navy/ecru stripes and my best have come from Monoprix and french markets.

  10. Melissa
    February 11, 2016 / 4:18 am

    Yes Susan these should be ideas to jump from, not necessarily the whole wardrobe, or then it does become boring. I totally agree.

    My wardrobe staples:
    Black turtleneck pullovers or cotton black turtleneck shirts. I have them in cotton, cashmere, knit, you name it. It has become my go to piece in the winter. I have them in other colors also, but the black is worn the most. I dress them with jeans, under dresses, I even wear over a fitted short knit black tank dress and dress up with winter tights, heels and jewelry.

    During the spring I wear a lot of blazers and jeans, well at least last year, this year we see depends on the temp in my new office, last year it was always cold.

    Summer is sandals and short dresses or maxis. NL almost anything goes in the offices here.

    Everything is almost always one color from top to bottom to make me look taller and thinner and it also gives the clothes a quality look no matter the price point.

    Although today I am wearing a kilt:) The tartan is navy blue, dark green and black.
    Was my dream purchase, and I finally got one last year, with matching solid colored blazer (only the collar has the tartan which isn’t worn indoors, too hot all that wool), with it I have on black riding boots, black turtleneck, black tights and cashmere/wool scarf that matches the kilts tartan.

    One lady said I look like a college girl, I guess cause it is a shorter kilt, but I told her it is the real McCoy not a Brittany Spears wanna be…… Another said while it isn’t her style it really suited me and looked great. Either way I always wanted one and this is a classic and won’t ever go out of style, worth every penny spent.

    • nell
      February 11, 2016 / 4:43 am

      Melissa, I do love that you break out of the usual look seen almost everywhere with your kilt. The total look with riding boots, tights and scarf sounds so dashing. I’m partial to kilts as well and had one in a Stewart tartan I think, and then a pretty, unidentified one that had purple, navy and hunter green. I used to wear it with a violet sweater. I still have an antique silver kilt pin from Scotland set with agates that I often wore in the skirt. Fun.

  11. Melissa
    February 11, 2016 / 7:25 am

    Thanks for the compliment Nell. It is different wearing one here in NL. oooo I am jealous, your items sound lovely 🙂
    I just got another compliment from a colleague. She said her boyfriend has one from Glasgow custom made, as they are going to a wedding there in April. Apparently their group of friends wear them also for matches.

    Man in a kilt…… yep a lovely site to behold…..

    Now that I live in Europe it is really time to get to Scotland. The problem is, that it is so damp and cold here that every time I plan a vacation it is to somewhere hot and sunny. I do intend a trip to research the family tartan and hope to get one made, so far internet searches only mention clans with similar last names:(
    Love the colors you mention in the purple one I bet it looked so elegant with the sweater, Stewart if I am correct was in the very bright red colors, I tried it but didn’t find it complimentary on me at all.

    • February 12, 2016 / 3:24 am

      There are several variations on the Stewart/Stuart tartan. That red one is Royal Stewart, and unfortunately a bit of a cliché. You might like the “hunting” (green) or “black” versions, or the “ancient” versions of various tartans (not as bright).

      Unfortunately real kilts are not kind to ladies with hips…

  12. Elle
    February 11, 2016 / 8:39 am

    For me these items are just a starting point, and you can mix them in with other, more personable, items – for example, a pop of color or some bolder prints. Or, if you wake up in the morning and can’t think of a thing to wear, you can’t go wrong with these items on their own, as you have so beautifully styled them. The only item I have several of, but don’t tend to wear much, is the classic white shirt. Just doesn’t do it for me. I definitely gravitate towards more basics and neutral colors etc. as I get older, however it is also true that my 16 year old daughter and lots of her friends dress much more classically than I did at her age. There have been many times when we’ve walked out to go somewhere wearing basically the same thing!

    There are a few other things that in my opinion, either never go out of style or always come back: Army green/parka style jackets, denim shirts (OK, I have about 8), leopard or animal print, and metallics.

  13. MarieP
    February 11, 2016 / 4:32 pm

    My poor husband was horrified to realize how well-dressed the Parisian men were and I giggled; I’d warned him. The women, however, were far broader in range, from slovenly to impeccable.

    Iconic items? The white button-down; I can’t wear it. The perfect pair of jeans; can’t live without them. The little jacket, for work or for dressing up the perfect pair of jeans; I own multiples. The little black dress; I don’t wear much black. The ballet flat and the elegant heel; yes, please! The scarf; it’s my preferred finishing touch and helped me fit in while in Paris.

  14. Beth
    January 4, 2017 / 8:14 pm

    Very helpful article. The French basics are great for building a foundation but then I can add in different accessories, shoes, etc. to express my own style. I have an LBD, skinny jeans and a black blazer that I wear all the time. I can’t wear the white blouse because I have warm skin and it doesn’t do anything for me. Thanks for this article!

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