13 French Wardrobe Rules To Capture Genuine Parisian Elegance

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If there’s one thing we can all agree on, French women know how to dress. That unspoken je ne sais quoi (meaning a certain quality that cannot be exactly named or described) is what sets them apart.

“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,” said Karl Lagerfeld.

French Fashion Now and Then

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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.

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.

What Sets French Women Apart

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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 principal rules for building the essential capsule wardrobe the French way.

1. Quality Above All

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French wardrobe basics are the exact opposite of fast fashion. You know, the ones we mean – the latest highly trendy clothing items 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 you can wear 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.

 “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, who knows the value of quality over quantity.

High-quality essential 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.

2. Be Mindful of What You Wear

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“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,” said Lou Doillon.

3. You and Your Body

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

According to Carine Roitfeld, the former editor of Vogue Paris, it is not at all. 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.”

4. Simplicity Matters

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There is a fine art in 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. She knows a thing or two about it. 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.

5. When in Doubt, Wear Black

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It may sound cliché, but yes, Parisian women do wear black a lot. 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.

6. But Embrace the Neutrals, Too

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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. A basic outfit of skinny-fit blue jeans and a simple tee with a camel-colored trench coat can work because such an outfit blends classic cuts in complementary neutral colors – blue denim, black, and camel.

7. Everyone Looks Good in Navy

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“Everything and everyone looks good in navy,” said 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. “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.”

8. Accessorize Less

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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,” – said Coco Chanel.

Remember this Coco Chanel’s timeless style advice. 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 are meaningful 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.

9. Play Dress-up in Tomboy Clothing

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“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, 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.

Remember to keep the collarbones and décolletage exposed for a softened feminine effect when adopting this style. “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.

10. But Still Be Unashamedly Feminine

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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!

11. Mix the Old With the New

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Style can be defined as an effortless ability to merge the ultra-modern with classic vintage. Think of ruffled camel-colored pants with a chiffon top and a vintage faux fur jacket. Or something decidedly more modern, with cuffed jeans, a navy blue jacket, and white 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.

12. Find a Signature Item

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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.

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 Carine Roitfeld, former editor of Vogue Paris. “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.”

13. The Power of Confidence

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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 wear, 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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