A Guide to French Wardrobe: 9 Rules to Capture Parisian Elegance

Woman dressed in classic French wardrobe: red polka dot dress
Photo: Jv Franes / Pexels

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, French women know how to dress. That unspoken je ne sais quoi is what sets them apart.

Consider all the iconic designers to come out of: Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and, of course, Coco Chanel. The inspiration behind their timeless designs was the devil-may-care effortlessly chic Parisian woman.

Today everybody can look chic in inexpensive clothes… You can be the chicest thing in the world in a T-shirt and jeans — it’s up to you.

Karl Lagerfeld

Then there are the modern-day ingénues who redefine street style with their unique Parisian twist: Isabel Marant, Sézane, Zadig & Voltaire, Vetements and Balmain, to name just a few.

But, exactly, how to dress like a French woman? What is French style? What is common for women in France? How can messy bed hair and smudged red lipstick look so glamorous yet so effortless at the same time? If casual and chic are two of your style mantras, you may already be well on your way to achieving that insouciant French allure. 

Here are the rules for building the essential french capsule wardrobe closet the French way.

9 Rules of French Wardrobe Philosophy

1. Quality Above All

“Today everybody can look chic in inexpensive clothes… You can be the chicest thing in the world in a T-shirt and jeans — it’s up to you.” Timeless advice from the best in the business, Karl Lagerfeld knows the value of quality over quantity.

French wardrobe basics are the exact opposite of fast fashion. You know the ones we mean – the latest highly trendy clothing items that are in fashion one season and out the next. The concept behind the French style is the polar opposite.

Instead, the focus is on neutral, versatile garments that can be worn repeatedly regardless of the season or current trend. Think basic blue jeans, a black silk blouse, and elegant ballet flats or white sneakers – French basics and simplicity at its finest.

High-quality basic items will always be a good investment.

That’s not to say that trendy clothing is strictly forbidden – quite the opposite. You’ll find the season’s hottest prints and colors liberally littered around the streets of Paris. The only difference is that these trends are only added as accessories to complement the basic uniform of classics and neutrals.

French style has got to do with a certain form of arrogance, which I love. French girls have tremendous respect for themselves in a way, and so they have what they want to wear, and what they won’t wear – even if every magazine cover is saying, “This is what you should be wearing.”

Lou Doillon

So, what about those wardrobe essentials; do they need to be expensive and high-end?

Not at all, according to the former editor of Vogue Paris, Carine Roitfeld. Carine has this tip she uses on her own clothing: “To make high street clothes look more expensive, I spend my time doing alterations to tailor clothes, so they fit,” she says.

The key to French chic is knowing the proportions of your body and finding clothing that accentuates your natural silhouette. “When you understand your body shape, you know how to dress,” adds Roitfeld. “My style is very simple but very specific. Everything is about proportion and silhouette. I’ve spent many years buying clothes and so much time on alterations because they never fit the way I want them to.”

2. Simplicity Matters

There is a fine art to looking like you haven’t tried too hard to be stylish. Yves Saint Laurent may have said it best: “Isn’t elegance forgetting what one is wearing?” Decades later, his minimalist aesthetic is more en vogue than ever.

“It’s always the same sweaters, the same coat that makes you beautiful,” says Roitfeld. And she should know – Tom Ford describes her as his “ideal woman.” “Especially when you’re exhausted, and you feel horrible, you need something that makes you feel comfortable.”

That comfort, however, should never come at the expense of good style. “Sensuality doesn’t come from heels – especially if you can’t walk in them,” explains Inès de la Fressange, the first model ever to be signed as the face of Chanel in the 80s. “It’s like a beautiful woman who has the perfect hair and makeup but doesn’t smile. You should dress to feel good, not show off,” she says.

3. When in Doubt, Wear Black

Photo: thesartorialist.com

It may sound like a cliché, but, yes, Parisian women do wear black all the time. And why not, right? They know the near-magical ability of black to slim down the figure and create that classic streamlined effect.

Their secret? Texture. Play with different fabrics, densities, and shapes when pairing the items. The color will be the common thread joining them all together.

This monochrome backdrop is also the perfect way to experiment with seasonal trends. Springtime florals? Slip on a flowery scarf to make a statement. Or how about the ever-cool athleisure trend? A slick pair of colorful Converse sneakers goes brilliantly with top-to-toe black.

4. But Embrace the Neutrals Too

Photo: Instagram/@annelauremais

Who says a trip on the Métro can’t be stylish? Try a trench coat and ride high on style.

Never underestimate the power of the classics. Here, influential style blogger Anne-Laure Mais covers up a basic outfit of skinny-fit blue jeans and a simple tee with a camel-colored trench coat. This outfit works because it blends classic cuts in complementary neutral colors – blue denim, black, and camel.

Everything and everyone looks good in navy.

Kate Phelan, the head of Topshop

Another must-have shade for Parisian style is Navy blue, especially as a less-harsh daytime alternative to black. “Everything and everyone looks good in navy,” says the head of Topshop, Kate Phelan. “This is universal – for men, women, and children,” agrees de la Fressange. “Navy will always be beautiful – whether you buy it at Uniqlo or Céline.”

5. Accessorize Less

Photo: Instagram/@camillecharriere

That chunky bohemian necklace, stacked beaded bracelets, and bold statement earrings? Sure, they may have their place at a costume party, but not in a French wardrobe. As in all things, French women prefer a much more straightforward approach. A few tasteful touches of metal here and there are all you need to complete the outfit.

Before you leave the house, take a look in the mirror and take one thing off.

Coco Chanel

Remember Coco Chanel’s timeless style advice: “Before you leave the house, take a look in the mirror and take one thing off.” The French aesthetic consists of small stud earrings, a classic watch, and maybe a few subtle metallic bangles.

Parisiennes especially love celebrating their individuality, albeit in an understated, timeless way. Get the look by choosing minimalist, delicate pieces that have some meaning to you. Maybe it’s a tennis bracelet from a loved one or a pendant necklace you’ve had since you were sixteen. The key is to develop your wardrobe in both clothing and accessories.

6. Play Dress-up in Tomboy Clothing

Photo: Instagram/@sarah_nait

“Le garçonne” is a style favored by the Parisian in-crowd – menswear-inspired clothing given a sexy feminine spin. Caroline de Maigret and Charlotte Gainsbourg are famous for this androgynous take on fashion. The look is described as boyish instead of masculine – think oversized blazers, the playful boy’s cut T-shirts, and quirky stovepipe jeans.

The benefit of this look is that it highlights the feminine shape – bulky, super-sized layers draw attention to the smallest and daintiest parts of the body.

When adopting this style, remember to keep the collarbones and décolletage exposed for a softened feminine effect. “It’s modern and old at the same time,” says French actress Marion Cotillard. “It’s feminine and masculine at the same time.” But it may be French actress Joséphine de La Baume who describes it best: “I like to look like a tomboy during the day and then a pin-up girl at night.” Nuff said.

7. But Still Be Unashamedly Feminine Too

Photo: Instagram/@jeannedamas

Fashion blogger Jeanne Damas has fast become the poster child for effortless French style. Channeling bohemian icons like Jane Birkin and Françoise Hardy, Damas’ glamorous yet laissez-faire style has made her the go-to girl for everything Parisian and chic. Form-fitting wrap dresses one day and a white T-shirt and straight-leg jeans the next – no matter what she wears, the silhouette is always flattering and ultra-feminine.

Scroll through Damas’ Instagram feed, and you’ll notice her penchant for another feminine staple: soft silk button-down blouses. The key is to wear these lightweight items with slim-fitting bottoms to create a feminine silhouette – tapered pants, high-waisted denim skirts, and the current denim favorite – flared jeans. 

Get the Jeanne Damas effect by topping off every look with her signature red lips – oh so French!

8. Mix the Old With the New

Photo: thesartorialist.com

This couple shows us precisely what defines style – that effortless ability to merge the ultra-modern with classic vintage. Her outfit pairs ruffled camel-colored pants with a chiffon top and a vintage faux fur jacket. His look is decidedly more modern, with cuffed jeans, a navy-blue jacket, and the shoes spotted on most Parisian youths – white Adidas Stan Smith sneakers.

An easy way to play up this old-meets-new philosophy is to have fun with your footwear. Along with their capsule closets of essential clothing items, French women have an equally varied selection of footwear. Basic ballet flats for daytime errands, pointy stiletto heels for an exclusive dinner, and classic espadrilles for the weekend.

9. Find a Signature Item

Photo: leblogdebetty.com

We’ve spoken before about the French capsule wardrobe. That doesn’t mean you can’t splurge on that one must-have style item that truly speaks to you. It could be a statement pair of heels or, as in the case of fashion blogger Betty Autier, a striped black and white blazer. Or it could be a cardigan or a wool coat – it’s all on you.

When [an item of clothing] suits you perfectly, it belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to the brand.

Carine Roitfeld, former editor of Vogue Paris

This garment will become a part of your signature attire and is a good way to create an aesthetic style that is all your own. Regardless of the season or current trend, a signature piece like this will stand the test of time.

“When [an item of clothing] suits you perfectly, it belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to the brand,” says Roitfeld. “You see the person first and the coat second. Making clothes your own is especially important on the high street: your style is entirely in the way you mix pieces together.”

2 Classy French Wardrobe Examples

Now that we’ve established the basic building blocks of the essential French wardrobe, how about a look at the daily outfits of real-life Parisians?

So, what are those timeless basics that make up the French wardrobe? With a focus on neutral colors and classic trend-proof designs, we suggest two examples of capsule wardrobes – the first for the formal work environment and the second for casual, more laid-back events.

The formal work wardrobe:

Photo: Instagram/@rouje
  • Little Black Dress
  • Classic White Button-Down Shirt
  • Tailored Black Pants
  • Navy Blue Fitted Blazer
  • Wrap Dress

This is a perfect office look courtesy of Parisian It girl Jeanne Damas. Invest in a pair of fitted ankle-grazing pants which will work perfectly with a variety of different shirts – from softly draped V-neck blouses like this one or a more structured classic white button-down shirts.

The casual weekend wardrobe:

Photo: etpourquoipascoline.fr
  • Slim-fit jeans
  • Breton striped top
  • Silk Blouse
  • Fitted Black Leather Jacket
  • Cashmere sweater

A typical example of a casual weekend French look – fitted blue jeans worn with a striped top and black leather boots, as seen here on fashion blogger Coline. A leather jacket can easily be thrown on for an urban edge or a seasonal piece like this jacket with metallic shoulder pads for a funky twist.

The items from these two wardrobes can be mixed and matched depending on the event. For example, a smart-casual dinner is a perfect opportunity for a wrap skirt or dress and a fitted leather jacket. Or maybe a striped Breton top worn with tailored black pants for a relaxed day at the office? The freedom of these individual garments is that they can be coordinated several different ways into unique, stylish outfits every time.

And, of course, as each person is different, your personal preference for color and fit will depend on your lifestyle and body proportions. The most important thing is to invest in durable, versatile garments that will serve as the blank canvas staples in your closet.

Last Words on French Fashion

Above all, though, French style comes down to innate confidence in yourself. French women don’t need to chop and change clothes with every season, nor do they need to sample each fad that comes their way. Regardless of the clothes they’re wearing, they are happy and content to be who they are.

In the words of Lou Doillon, the daughter of legendary style icon Jane Birkin: “French style has got to do with a certain form of arrogance, which I love. French girls have tremendous respect for themselves in a way, and so they have what they want to wear, and what they won’t wear – even if every magazine cover is saying, ‘This is what you should be wearing.”

We couldn’t have said it better.

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