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How to Create a Classic French Wardrobe

April 29, 2021

If you had your pick, which French fashion icon would you emulate? A classic ‘70s icon like Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Hardy, or Brigitte Bardot, or perhaps a more modern icon like Charlotte Gainsbourg or Jeanne Damas? Inspired by this range of French icons, we started putting together a list of French fashion blogs, instagram accounts to follow, and a variety of fashion dos and don’ts. Below, you’ll find a collection of advice related to la mode that we’ve given our students over the years during our fashion workshops

This coming Sunday, May 2nd, you can join us for an exclusive online workshop streaming live from the Anne Fontaine boutique! What kind of outfit should you sport for une petite promenade (little stroll) on the banks of the Seine? How about at un apéro (happy hour) or a romantic night out? Sign up here to learn all about the culture and vocabulary de la mode française!

By Sophia Millman

 

Opt for classic clothes that won’t go out of fashion

Jean Seberg and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Jean Seberg and Charlotte Gainsbourg

In general, the French dress in a more “classic” or conservative way than Americans do. In Paris, for instance, you’ll see tons of neutral tones (navy blue, black and gray). You’ll also see fewer “eccentric” or extremely colorful outfits than you would in New York or London. However, the French do like to make their outfits pop with one eye-catching accessory. 

Tout est dans la mesure is a good rule to follow. Basically, to dress like a French person, you shouldn’t look over the top: wear your hair naturally, don’t put on too much make-up, and don’t over-accessorize. In France, it’s rare to see someone with straightened or curled hair. Choose only one “sexy” item to add to your outfit: for instance, wear high heels with jeans and a casual top so you can achieve an effortless chic look. Also, make sure to avoid wearing showy designer labels. 

 

Draw inspiration from French fashion blogs and Instagram accounts

Catherine Deneuve 

Catherine Deneuve

To create a classic French wardrobe, you’ll want to buy some staples like a trench coat that fits you perfectly, a striped blouse or the ever-popular marinière, simple white sneakers, and a great pair of black jeans.

Here are some contemporary French fashion blogs and instagram accounts to follow as you build your classic wardrobe:

 

Have the perfect scarf for every occasion

Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin

Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin

In France, both men and women wear scarves throughout the year. There are specific terms for each type of scarf. L’écharpe is worn in winter and is usually made of wool or another warm material. Le foulard is made of a lighter material like silk or cotton, and can be worn in spring and summer. There’s also le châle (shawl), l’étole (wrap), le pashmina, and even le carré de soie, generally a silk, square-shaped scarf that you wear around your neck or to protect your hair. 

Tips for buying the perfect scarf:

  • Make sure the scarf is made of 100% natural materials like cotton, linen, silk, etc. Synthetic fibers do not breathe well and your foulard will make you feel overheated in the summer. In the winter, a synthetic écharpe also won’t keep you warm enough. Opt for fabrics like wool, cashmere, or alpaca.
  • Make sure your scarf’s big enough (long and wide) to tie it in different ways. Smaller scarves are harder to pull off, especially for men. 
  • Believe it or not, there’s a whole set of rules for how to best tie or wrap a scarf. Check out this funny French site, which breaks them down visually for you. 

 

Wear something chic underneath

Sophie Marceau and Isabelle Adjani

Sophie Marceau and Isabelle Adjani

There are tons of options when it comes to buying lingerie in France! French women wear comfortable lingerie, but they also tend to wear what Americans consider “sexy” lingerie more often, not just on special occasions. In general, French women do not wear bras with padding (rembourrage). 

Here are three lingerie brands we recommend, whose products are made in France using natural materials:

 

Choose flattering tights rather than go bare-legged

Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Hardy 

Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Hardy

The French start wearing tights as soon as it gets a bit cold out. While you might see Americans wear a miniskirt and boots with bare legs, the French always pair their skirts and dresses with tights. And don’t be afraid to wear a skirt with tights and sneakers, rather than with boots–this is a look you see often in Paris! 

Here are our top tips for tights (sorry, that’s a bit of a tongue twister!):

  • If you’re wearing high boots, wear opaque tights so that you won’t get runs in them. The French look at the denier of stockings before buying them to know how thick they are. If you’re worried about your tights snagging, buy tights with 40 deniers or more. If you want to wear thin tights at all costs, put an opaque knee-high sock over them which will be hidden by the boot and will protect the tights!
  • Buy at least five pairs of tights for your winter wardrobe: one thin and transparent black pair, one semi-opaque black pair, one opaque black pair, one wool pair, and then one with a fancy pattern! 
  • Skip nude pantyhose. Flesh-colored tights are rarely flattering. 
  • Never put your tights in the dryer and don’t use a fabric softener! If they are made of wool, they should be washed cold and with a specialized detergent.

 

Pay extra attention to your shoes, glasses, and accessories

Jane Birkin and Romy Schneider

Jane Birkin and Romy Schneider

At each of our fashion workshops, we always share the same tip with students: “The right sneakers go a long way!” The French today love les baskets (sneakers or tennis shoes) and they wear them on all occasions. You’ll see women on New Year’s Eve in Paris wearing sneakers with chic black dresses. It’s a look. While you might think that the French wear high heels often, in fact, most French women don’t wear heels regularly and their heels usually aren’t above three inches. So, our first tip is to make sure you find some flattering sneakers that you can wear with lots of different outfits! Some great French sneaker brands include Veja, National Standard, Pied de biche, Pairs in Paris, and you can find more here

Our second tip has to do with glasses. In France, many people wear lunettes, and you might have noticed that they’re almost always round – round lenses are considered more flattering on most face shapes than rectangular ones. If you haven’t already thought about what glasses best match your face shape, check this French article out. Finally, Jimmy Fairley is a popular glasses and sunglasses brand in France, and we recommend checking out their frames for inspiration. You can also check out all the major French fashion brands for their eyewear lines. 

 

Reserve your athletic wear for working out

Catherine Deneuve

Catherine Deneuve

One thing that surprises French people when they visit the US is the sports apparel that’s, well… everywhere. In restaurants, at the supermarket, at a movie theater: Americans wear gym clothes wherever and whenever they feel like it. Most French people can’t bear the thought of wearing their pajamas anywhere but in bed, so you can imagine that they also only wear sportswear when they’re working out. You’ll also rarely see a French person on the street wearing leggings (unless he or she’s going to ballet practice) or flip-flops (mais oui, évidemment, these are strictly for the beach!). 

Want some tips on how to choose the perfect athletic wear? Just kidding! Our American students clearly know more about athletic fashion than we do. If there’s one area the French don’t excel in when it comes to fashion, it’s definitely got to be gym clothes. But, if you want to practice your French, check out the video “Comment s’habiller pour faire du sport en salle ?” for a few laughs and maybe some inspiration.