What Is A "French" Wardrobe And Will It Help Your Style?

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

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?


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  1. TC Brooks
    October 5, 2015 / 5:21 am

    Interesting. I think I complicate my wardrobong my not starting with basic pieces that “play well together”. I have three closets of clothes – most styled for me by personal shoppers. But, everyday I’m flusteredd by the assembling of outfits. But, your idea of cohesion helps make this process less complicated. Start with basics and add zest with accessories. Psssst: sometimes I start with accessories and get so confused by where to go from there. Today I’m starting with core pieces to see if that helps this fashion mentee. Again, great post! Glad I subscribed!

  2. susan
    October 5, 2015 / 5:33 am

    i was pleased to see that i have every item on the list except stiletto heels, but those are just the bones. the fun comes from fleshing out the bones with pretty colors and prints, jewelry and accessories. the basics are safe but boring. i haven’t been to france in many years and was glad to hear from you that the style on real women there is not so uniform as the fashion magazines make it appear to be.

  3. sandypatti
    October 5, 2015 / 6:48 am

    great post – I think these pieces are versatile, hard-wearing and mostly flattering to all. these are the “cake” and adding on colorful variations is the “icing” I think. xox


  4. bobbie
    October 5, 2015 / 6:59 am

    I so agree with you. I tried that formula for years and the jacket and white shirt hung unworn in my closet. I hate myself in white and a structured jacket is very uncomfortable on me. There’s some truth in the formula for some but in a casual work environment or for a stay at home mom or a retiree like me, I think it’s too formal. Those jackets could be sweaters, the shirt could have color and the pants all jeans. You have to know how you live to know what you need to wear.

    • October 5, 2015 / 2:28 pm

      Bobbie, I agree with you. I work at home and the rest of my time is spent in a very casual environment. The only time I’ve ever worn a white button-down shirt is as a required concert outfit. I just don’t like wearing white, especially as a tee. I also rarely wear my good jackets, but I keep them because they are good quality and can raise the ante on my outfits if I need it. Generally, I prefer a nice cardigan.

      What I take away from all of the “how to dress like a French woman” lists is the need to edit your wardrobe to only things that you will use, of the best quality you can purchase. Binge shopping is the scourge of most women I know – my own mother and sister have stuffed closets full of clothes they have never even worn, some of which I gladly take and wear, but most of it I decline to take when they need to find room for the latest sale at Macy’s. Everyone has nearly all of the “ten must haves,” but most of us can’t find them in the midst of so what is simply too much clothing.

      • Maimie
        October 5, 2015 / 8:49 pm

        I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who feels uncomfortable in white. But it’s about the only color I won’t wear. If you tell me tomorrow is Chartreuse Day, I can do it… and have several options. But white just feels harsh and empty at the same time.

  5. October 5, 2015 / 7:00 am

    I don’t think good basics are boring; they are actually rather hard to find. I certainly wear more skirts than this list would show. Have never worn stiletto heels in my life, and most of my friends in Paris (and Lyon) find them ridiculous (they do have heels one can actually walk in, but also flatter shoes and booties).

    The galling thing here in the frozen North is the ugly heavy coats we have to wear for several months, and all the room those take up in the closet.

  6. sybes1
    October 5, 2015 / 7:03 am

    You will laugh when you read this: my fashion hero was a teacher friend of my mother’s. She didn’t dye her hair but wore it salt and pepper natural in an angled bob. She wore black (giggle)–Audrey pants and turtle necks. Silver bangles on her wrist. I thought she was so glamorous–very much in the ‘beat’ 50’s style.

  7. EJ
    October 5, 2015 / 7:06 am

    I would also like to see links to more moderately priced items included. It’s fine to show $150+ scarves, but also let women know they can achieve a sophisticated look for much less. I have great scarves from a department store for $45, and more great ones for even less from a chain known for its cheap jeans (which I also buy). I get frequent compliments on my wardrobe. The trick is to stick to neutrals — particularly black and gray — and avoid garish colors in the accessories.

    • une femme
      October 5, 2015 / 7:14 am

      Hi EJ, I try to include items in a range of prices in the widgets at the bottom of the posts. I didn’t have time this week to gather examples of all of the items, but will be sure to include some lower-priced scarves in the next collection.

  8. October 5, 2015 / 7:25 am

    Since my student years in France, I have always striven, not terribly successfully, for a small, flexible wardrobe. But many of the pieces here do not work for my coloring, body, wool allergy and lifestyle. What works for me is lean jeans and narrow boot cuts, scoop, v- neck and or cowl tops in rich autumnal colors, low boots, fine gauge cashmere boyfriend sweaters and my two cashmere shawls which I have worn for decades and still love. I have worn variations on this for the past 40 years. I try other things but I always come back to these basics.

  9. LauraH
    October 5, 2015 / 7:36 am

    Perhaps we find these ‘must have’ lists appealing because they’re so simple. There is so much product out there, so much advertising, so much being thrown at us. These lists help to eliminate some of that confusion, although I feel the ‘French’ factor has been overblown. For many years I had no idea how to choose clothes that would suit me and make me feel good. With help from you, Duchesse, Vivienne Files, Imogen Lamport and Christine Scaman, I found a look that works well for me. It’s somewhat similar to the pieces you show, although no stripes, no black and a lot more bright colour. Now it’s just so much easier and I feel good when I walk out of the house.

  10. Deborah Lindsay
    October 5, 2015 / 7:53 am

    Thank you for this post! I can’t stand myself in all dark colors. Basics as foundation- yes, but I need more fun too. Love your blog!

  11. October 5, 2015 / 9:45 am

    I can’t do without a my jean style mini skirt in faded denim. It’s my go to piece and more versatile than a pair of jeans.

  12. Jessica
    October 5, 2015 / 10:16 am

    I am a “natural” type and I have always looked to Ingrid Bergman as a style type. Thank you for mentioning her here! I don’t like white tailored blouses as a rule since they make me look un feminine. I would add in a white or ivory peasant blouse to your list – they seem to be a new classic these days and can look so nice for relaxed occasions where you want something other than a tee.

  13. Susan
    October 5, 2015 / 11:19 am

    I always look at lists because people more interested in clothing and fashion than I am have given some thought to compiling a list. I like basics and I am always looking for what others think the best basics are–and how they can be accessorized.

  14. October 5, 2015 / 1:51 pm

    Great points Susan! I have most of the pieces and do use them as the backbone, on which I build my unique style.

  15. Duchesse
    October 5, 2015 / 1:59 pm

    I own most of these (except stilettos) and they are the most-used items in my closet. What you are showing is really an urban wardrobe seen in many big cities of the Northern hemisphere, especially North American and Europe. When I was in Latin America, did not see such a set, lots more appliqué, sheer fabrics and a riot of colour. (A Brazilian woman said to me, “We think you American women dress like men.”)

    My French friends are always amazed at the sheer quantity of North American women’s wardrobes.

    • October 18, 2015 / 2:04 pm

      I always like your responses Duchess and I look forward to seeing them the most. Thanks for sharing your thoughts .

  16. October 5, 2015 / 2:15 pm

    No stilettos but oui à toutes les autres choses! It is really easy to dress if most of one’s wardrobe is neutral. I would agree with La Duchesse that my Mexican friends (including ex-pats) dress with more colour and texture.

  17. Kate
    October 5, 2015 / 2:39 pm

    “everything black, white, navy, grey” — great palette for those with “winter” colouring, maybe some “summers” — but a lot of people will be totally washed out, overpowered, and flattened by those colours. Warm complexions should look at cream, espresso, olive for great neutral basics. I feel like a lot of minimalist wardrobes play up a black/white monochrome look, which is fantastic on computer screens but doesn’t always translate well onto many, many skin tones. I see a lot of people trying to pull off black/white looks who’d be better off with a touch of warmth in their wardrobe. Anyone know of any good resources for minimalist closets for those with warm skin tones (i.e. spring and autumn)?

    I think telling everyone they need the perfect white shirt and LBD is not doing much of the population any favours!

    • Susan
      October 6, 2015 / 12:15 am

      Try Imogen Lamport website. She has quite a few articles about wearing the shades if colour for your skin tone. Imogen also writes about fluidity of clothes for body types. I agree with you that colour is very flattering unlike black which is quite hard, especially as we age. Ditto for the white shirt.

    • Vickie
      October 18, 2015 / 10:04 pm

      I totally agree with Kate! I’m an average warm/sallow skin toned lady of 53 with Welsh/Irish background (dark brown hair/eyebrows/hazel eyes) – nothing special, just very much the majority of the population. I look TERRIBLE in black, white, navy (aaagh!)-can just about do a ‘warm’ charcoal grey on a good day. I buy clothes in the Autumn season (which do me all year) – olive/khaki greens, orangey reds, meadow greens, russets, chocolate browns, dark oranges, cream, tan and rust colours – nothing with a blue undertone (even bluey reds are a no no). My wardrobe staples are warm and deep – I had to wear white and navy for school back in the day and I looked pure zombie – so CAN’T do this stark monochrome – don’t know anyone who can really! Even a LBD is out for me, unless I warmed it up with brown!

  18. Rosi
    October 5, 2015 / 4:51 pm

    My wardrobe is about lots of jeans pants, not skinnies, and shirts: cotton and silk ones. And, lots and lots of colours. Every shade of blue and pink and green, violet, stripes, polka dots, flowers, animals etc. And it is preatty classical. Everybody says I’m elegant. And my shoos are low shape. And when it gets cold, blazers, male ones. A love colours and I use and abuse then. Of course may base is my jeans.

  19. October 5, 2015 / 5:50 pm

    Great post! As much as I love the idea of a “French” wardrobe, I know that’s it’s more the emperor’s clothes of fashion magazines than reality. If you read a French fashion magazine they all talk about copying l’américaine and her casual beach babe look. Meanwhile we are copying them. So we’re pretty much like a dog chasing it’s own tail, lol.

  20. diane
    October 5, 2015 / 6:54 pm

    Black leggings have been the backbone of my wardrobe for several years now – comfy, easy to dress up or down, easy to pack – however, they suddenly look very dated to me.
    Can anyone suggest a good substitute?
    (I’m quite fond of pajamas but they sadly they don’t work well outside the house!)

  21. October 5, 2015 / 7:28 pm

    I really agree with you. I’m finding that more and more that when I buy something I know that it will work with loads of other stuff in my closet because I’m sticking with the same overall theme.

    For me it all starts with colour but of course my jeans would be the one item I can wear with anything.


  22. October 5, 2015 / 8:06 pm

    Basic, simple pieces in black, gray and white work well for me, but I also add animal prints for spice. I wear my leather moto jacket 3 seasons. The only thing I don’t have right now is a trench coat. Almost everything goes together and makes it a lot easier to feel put together.

  23. Kathleen
    October 5, 2015 / 10:05 pm

    I was in Paris for two weeks in May. The only things I saw that were consistent among the local women were athletic shoes and scarves. This idea that all French women dress and behave in one certain way is a myth. They are as varied as we are. Besides, wouldn’t it be difficult to tell people apart if they all wore exactly the same thing?

  24. Marie-Odile
    October 6, 2015 / 12:47 pm

    I’m French… and do not own any of those items in my small wardrobe, with the exception of jeans (did not at some point of time, but unavoidable now that I’m living in SoCal!) and scarves (which I only wear when traveling now that I’m working at home)…. I do have “everything black, navy, grey” though! (Not white, anything white makes me look like a nurse IMO) – When shopping in the US, I always find the color offering in stores verging on “garish”… (or not subtle enough for my taste I should say…). For me, French style is a lot about individuality/originality. I don’t feel myself in the supposedly “French basics” !

    • October 6, 2015 / 3:05 pm

      Marie-Odile, I think you have targeted two important points of the so-called “French” wardrobe, which is based on a very specific type of woman in a very few Paris arrondissements. These are a smaller wardrobe and avoidance of garish or overdone colour. It can be hard to find the rich, singular colours one finds in France and even more in Italy. Some of the appeal is like that of tiny, perfect houses and flats.

      I also hate myself in white, even peeking out from a dark jacket – moreover I have a black cat – and am fonder of burgundy and forest green than of navy.

  25. Carol S
    October 6, 2015 / 8:41 pm

    I don’t have any of the clothes on the list! They don’t seem very interesting and some items seem like they would be uncomfortable. I am not traditionally stylish either – daggy actually. I am extremely happy in my own style and colours. Viva la difference! Hugs to all!

  26. Debbie
    October 7, 2015 / 3:20 am

    I find sticking to the so called basics make it easier to put together an outfit. I love white shirts and they look good with dark denim jeans and black pants. Add a nice belt or scarf with a jacket and boots or a high heel and cute bag and your set for the day. Mind you I still love to put on a summer dress and sandals with a fun necklace. My closet has lots of black, grey, white, navy, one red shirt, stripes and one poka dot shirt. Oh and one floral top to remind me that floral does not suit me. I’ve followed trends, bought outfits because they were the latest fashion and colour, worn clothes that were truely outdated and have come to realise that buying clothes that are classic and well made is the way to go. You can always update an outfit with new shoes or a latest fashion accessory.

  27. October 7, 2015 / 2:55 pm

    I regularly go to France (usually 3 times a year) as I have family living there and this so called ‘look’ is not what I see ordinary French women wearing everyday. I don’t know, maybe it’s because it’s the South of France where there is a completely different vibe, temperature, way of life than Northern France. This ‘look’ which you’re right, comes up alot is a stereotype – you know – like all us Brits who go round wearing wellies and tweed! It’s become almost a parody of itself. Yes, French women do have smaller wardrobes but it’s more imaginative that all these lists would have us believe! And as some other ladies have so rightly said, on many skin tones, this would not work. I look washed out in black and white. I look much better in colour. Of course, if this kind of look works on you, great, go for it but like everything, only choose it if it works. Creating your own style is much more fun than copying what you think it style.
    Completely agree with you about cohesion. Thank for another great article. I love this kind of posts from you.

  28. M-C
    October 8, 2015 / 1:16 pm

    Those dictates on what French women wear completely ignore that French women wear basically what’s in fashion at the time, which usually is quite different from year to year. Even a freshly-printed book, given the editing/printing delays, has grossly over-valued pieces that scream “hasn’t been paying attention!”. Which of course is the heinous crime :-).

    • une femme
      October 8, 2015 / 7:47 pm

      M-C, I have noticed on our trips to Paris that so many women seem to have “received the memo” about what color or style is “in.” Earlier this summer it seemed to be silver or metallic flats.

  29. October 12, 2015 / 8:19 am

    How refreshing to read that these classics are not necessarily French! I never really thought so anyway as my fave online retailer, Boden, often stresses this type of ensemble. They must have 4 styles of the Breton in oodles of color combos which thankfully get interpreted into more modern hues which update one’s wardrobe immediately for the season. In fact, Boden appears to be cutting down the scarf print selection seriously (maybe it’s only this season).

    Thank you for the packing lists you thoughtfully provide often. I’m using one to pack for a trip to CT this week. I live in humid south Florida where my sartorial choices are rather limited from thirty-five years here and climate change making every year somehow hotter and more humid than the last. It’s so time-saving to work from one instead of over-packing.

  30. Mystic Comfort
    October 12, 2015 / 10:04 am

    I love the idea of a capsule wardrobe, and “French wardrobe” always makes me think of classic, elegant style. But my own style is casual and natural. And my coloring is warm. So for me, I go with the idea, just as you have, of simplicity. Of having several basic neutral pieces I can count on, to which I add color and my own style. Great post!


    My Visible Monday post…

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