France most definitely does not have an #OOTD culture. Wearing basically the same thing every day is not considered odd; the uniform approach comes across as possession of a good sense of style and self-knowledge. This way of dressing is very practical because it’s really easy to look chic with a few key pieces, often called a capsule wardrobe. Then as your budget and desire increases, you can add in more high-quality, well-made basics, always making sure that they’re pieces that work with what you already have and that you can (and will) wear over and over.
Buy clothing and accessories that last, and don’t be shy about repeating looks. This will change your relationship with yourself, others around you, and the environment. Trendy fast fashion purchased on impulse is often far less personal than a high-quality, timeless item that you longed for before buying.
By focusing on quality and fit instead of fashion trends, you can avoid the feeling of constantly needing new clothing. Choosing more timeless pieces (preferably vintage!) that fit in with your personal style and collecting them slowly over time will help you build your ideal faux French wardrobe.
Once you have your closet of basics set up, you can infuse a little fun. Twice per year, just as either warmer weather or colder weather is approaching, check out the runway shows online, on Pinterest, or in a favorite fashion magazine, and pick one (or a few, depending on your budget) trend piece and wear it like crazy for the whole season.
Here are some basics to help you create your Parisian capsule wardrobe:
LITTLE WHITE T-SHIRT
Images of Jane Birkin wearing shrunken white T-shirts make regular appearances on Pinterest. Sometimes the shirt is tucked into faded, flared-leg jeans, and sometimes it’s knotted in front to create a crop top. Sometimes the sleeves are rolled up, sometimes not. (This being Jane Birkin, the one constant is the lack of a bra.)
She mastered the art of finding basic shirts that suited her figure and wearing them numerous different ways. Even more impressively, she made simple things look sexy. Find the perfect white T-shirt, make sure it still looks great after you wash it, and if so, buy an extra in white and two in black. These T-shirts can really become the base for your whole wardrobe because you can dress them up with a blazer or dress them down with denim. They’ll serve as undershirts to keep you warm in winter and as starring pieces to keep you cool in summer. If one of them gets to the point where you think it looks too tired (or stained or full of moth holes), make it your go-to workout or around-the-house shirt and buy a fresh one.
WHITE COTTON BUTTON-DOWN SHIRT
Another Jane Birkin staple is the classic white button-down. Your style, budget, and day-to-day life will determine whether it is an oversized shirt “borrowed” from a man’s closet or a perfectly tailored work-appropriate one with gleaming white mother-of-pearl buttons.
The great thing about a white button-down shirt is its versatility. At work, you can wear the sleeves in the full-length proper way, the shirt tucked in, and all but the top button buttoned. Headed to happy hour? Roll up the sleeves and unbutton a button or two. Recycle the shirt by pairing it with jeans over the weekend, wearing it tied in a knot at your waist. Pop the collar if you’re feeling sassy.
BLACK SILK BUTTON-DOWN BLOUSE
This is a good piece to have when you don’t know what to wear. Worn with a blazer, it gives you instant polish when headed to a big meeting or a formal event. Worn with jeans, it becomes the ultimate appropriate-yet-sexy go-to item that will suit a variety of occasions, whether it’s heading to a friend’s home for dinner or going on a date.
If a silk blouse feels too formal for you, another option is a semisheer black blouse that ties at the neck. You can wear it with a camisole underneath for an elegant evening look or with just a black bra and jeans for a casual evening look.
DENIM BUTTON-DOWN SHIRT
Both trendy and timeless, the blue denim button-down shirt has become a uniform staple for many a stylish woman (and man). There are countless ways to wear a denim shirt, especially now that denim-on-denim has shed its “Canadian tuxedo” reputation. Once this look has passed its moment, you can still wear your denim shirt as a summer cover-up or light jacket for decades to come.
Think of a new denim shirt as a hit song. It makes you happy every time you hear it, perhaps you play it on repeat for months, and then it becomes well worn and you get tired of it. But years later, you will be happy when you start playing it again, and it will bring you good memories through the decades. Like the songs we love, we associate memories with clothes. Bringing out something you wore on your first date has the same effect as playing the song you first kissed to. Instead of buying trendy fast fashion items, buy pieces that make you happy. Make great memories in them, and then store them away for a bit. The memories will always be there, whether in one year or ten.
Just like white jeans, nautical Breton-inspired stripes are trendy practically every summer. You can be sure that if you buy a great little blue-and-white-striped top, you will pull it out year after year to wear beginning in spring.
The classic striped shirt was originally part of the uniform for French navy men in Brittany, and the original design (called marinière) had twenty or twenty-one stripes. It then became popular with seamen across the region of Northern France for its ease of wear and visibility. After a visit to the French coast, Coco Chanel introduced the garment to the yachting world in 1917, and the striped shirt became an option for both men and women of the haute bourgeoisie. In the 1930s, the shirt became popular with European and American socialites vacationing on the French Riviera, who used it as a chic take on sailor style. It turned “city” decades later through the beatnik scene on the rive gauche and it became synonymous with Parisian style. Luminaries like Jean-Paul Sartre, Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol, and Audrey Hepburn helped make the striped shirt an international sensation.
Have you seen Jean Seberg in À Bout de Souffle (a.k.a. Breathless)? The stripes in this film are just so good.
Before making your next purchase, think about what you want out of the garment. What type of climate do you live in, and what is your lifestyle? What do you want your clothing to do for you? If you are buying a sweater that is meant to keep you warm and it’s a thin acrylic blend, it won’t accomplish what you need it to and probably won’t last very long. Meanwhile, a wool or cashmere sweater might be more of an investment, but it will keep you warmer, last a lot longer, and look better.
Cashmere comes from the combed-out underhair of Kashmir goats. Its use as a textile dates back to the third century BC. It has a lighter weight than other wools, and it provides excellent insulation from the elements. Cashmere is durable, and well-made cashmere garments can last decades. It also resists wrinkling.
A sweater option that is usually more affordable than cashmere is merino wool. Merino is a breed of sheep that has very fine and soft wool. It regulates body temperature, so it is often used in performance wear. It provides warmth without overheating the wearer and also slightly repels moisture. Unlike cotton, it retains its warmth when wet.
Find a comfortable cashmere sweater in a flattering fit, and you will wear it all fall and winter long, year after year. Worn with a T-shirt, it’s warm and practical, and worn with only a lacy bra underneath, it’s sexy. If you’re buying one, go with black, navy, or gray.
BLACK CIGARETTE-FIT TROUSERS
Slim and slightly cropped black pants look fantastic with flats and heels alike, making them a must for every wardrobe. They’re polished yet casual; they’re comfortable yet flattering. Make sure they hit on the right spot at the ankle and that they’re not tight at the ankle. Think 1950s bombshell or Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.
Depending on your lifestyle, you can buy them in trouser form (e.g., wool or brushed chino-style cotton) or in a stretchy version (making sure that they aren’t so tight that they look like leggings), but I think the denim version is best because you don’t have to worry about dry cleaning. Cigarette-fit jeans are very similar to skinny jeans, but the cut is slightly looser and more chic. If your budget allows, buy the same fit in black leather.
White jeans in France are an incredibly common sighting, worn by teenage girls and fiftysomething women alike. It is hands down the summer staple. During summer months, white jeans are appropriate in pretty much any situation in any type of weather, barring rainy days because they’ll get splattered with mud. They can be dressed up for dinner with heels and a cute top or dressed down with flat sandals and a T-shirt or denim shirt for a day at the park. Make sure your pair isn’t too tight; a pair of stretchy, tight white jeans is just tacky. A straight-leg, slightly cropped, slightly relaxed fit is flattering and timeless. When searching for a pair to buy, wear flats to try them on, and make sure they still look good when rolled up.
Denim is made of sturdy cotton twill, a natural woven textile. In addition to its obvious appeal, denim has added benefits for the summer months: it quickly absorbs moisture, it quickly dries, and it has a cooling effect when it’s warm.
RELAXED FIT/BOYFRIEND JEANS
Slouchy boyfriend jeans look good with heels and a cashmere sweater for a casual-but-cool look, and they’re nice to have on hand for when you don’t feel like putting on something fitted. They’re great replacements for sweatpants, making the ideal companion for lounging around at home, going for a walk in the park, or running a quick errand. Parisiennes never go around town in workout clothes or sweatpants, but that doesn’t mean that they always dress formally or sacrifice comfort. It only takes a few seconds to change out of workout clothes, and running errands in jeans, a T-shirt, and flats is just as comfortable as doing so in spandex workout clothes, if not more.
Sometimes it’s helpful to look back before moving forward. In fashion, what goes around comes around, and if you’re observant and patient, you can build a wardrobe that is on-trend without constantly having to buy new things and chase the trends. If styled in a modern way, thoughtfully selected pieces from your own wardrobe can be wearable decade after decade.
Flared-leg jeans certainly fit into this category. When the clothing of sixties hippies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and New York’s Greenwich Village went mainstream and became stylish, it lost its original significance as a form of protest. The youthful bohemian look became an international fashion sensation that shaped the seventies and became embraced by even the most conservative men and women. The widespread popularity of denim—especially the flared-leg kind—is the most prominent aspect of the decade, and obviously denim remains just as pervasive today. Jeans styles change, but like all things fashion, trends are cyclical and almost always return, so when flared-leg jeans go out of style, store them away for the next time around.
BLACK FLARED-LEG TROUSERS
If you work in a formal environment, investing in a pair of well-fitting black trousers is a necessity. You can wear these week after week all year around with blazers, blouses, and cashmere sweaters. If you don’t work in an office, black flared-leg trousers are still a great option for wearing out to dinner or events, dressed down with a T-shirt or dressed up with a silk button-down blouse.
Shorts can be tricky for many women, especially as we get older, but there’s a pair out there for everyone. It can just take time to find. Experiment with different lengths and cuts until you discover just the right pair that you can throw on all summer long, for wearing to the beach or while just lounging around your home. Pair with a denim shirt and wedges for a casual dinner out or with a T-shirt for a casual dinner in.
The originator of the miniskirt was Mary Quant, a London designer whose mod looks became a signature of the swinging sixties. Though the miniskirt is English in origin, no Parisienne-inspired closet is complete without one. How “mini” you go is up to you and your lifestyle. Paired with tights, short skirts are flattering on most everyone. Just make sure to find the right balance of proportions and avoid wearing a miniskirt with sky-high heels and bare legs for daytime. Miniskirts work well with flat boots for daytime or heels for nighttime.
BLACK PENCIL SKIRT
Supersexy when paired with a cashmere sweater or a T-shirt and stilettos, the black pencil skirt is an excellent wardrobe staple. To learn how to wear a pencil skirt à la parisienne, take notes from Sophie Marceau in the film Une Rencontre (Quantum Love). Pencil skirts look good on both slim and curvy bodies, on women of all ages and heights, and they are appropriate for both work (if not too tight) and play. Make sure to avoid wearing your pencil skirt with flat shoes or thick tights, though, because it will look sad and matronly instead of sexy.
What article of clothing is more versatile than a little black dress? Every closet needs one LBD, if not more, budget allowing. It’s helpful to have one that’s on the sexier side for dates or nights out, one for more conservative evening events, and a versatile one for daytime that looks good with either flats or heels.
Credited to Coco Chanel, the little black dress was made iconic in 1926 when American Vogue compared it to a Model T Ford car. It gained further appeal thanks to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the classic style has seen countless variations since.
Black is slimming and easy to keep clean, and it goes with pretty much everything. You can wear all-black accessories, or you can pile on the color. It’s simultaneously a sober color and a sexy one, which is what makes it so versatile. Little black dresses don’t necessarily need to be little per se; they can be skimpy or they can be multilayered and avant-garde. Really, they’re whatever your body type and lifestyle deem appropriate. Perhaps the best thing about an LBD is that once you find one that suits you, it can be a go-to piece in your wardrobe decade after decade.
Though totally American, the denim jacket is another staple of the Parisienne’s wardrobe. If you have the time and interest, finding a vintage one can be a much cheaper (and more original) way to add this piece if you don’t have one that you like already.
Black and navy-blue blazers are ubiquitous in France. Women of all ages and all sizes wear blazers for daytime and nighttime, all year around. Yes, women in other countries wear them too, but the big difference in France is that practically every woman wears them with T-shirts underneath, and they aren’t just worn in professional settings. In the United States, women typically wear blazers when headed to the office, with blouses or lightweight shells or sweaters underneath.
Even if you’re wearing a T-shirt and jeans, a blazer will provide instant polish. Women with longer legs always look great in blazers, but women with shorter legs need to be a bit picky with this style of jacket. If you have a longer torso and shorter legs, know that a slightly cropped version will be more flattering and consider wearing it only with heels in order to balance proportions.
Regardless of how you decide to wear your blazer, make sure it is of good quality. The instant polish part only happens if you buy a good one. Check the quality of the fabric and the construction, and take it to a tailor if the sleeves aren’t just right. Check the buttons and the lining too; it should look good with and without the sleeves rolled up.
BLACK LEATHER JACKET
There are many styles of leather jackets; buy one that suits your way of life. If you’re fairly conservative and you buy a motorcycle style, you probably won’t get much use out of it. This is definitely an investment piece, so choose wisely. A great way to cut down on cost is not by compromising but instead by searching for a well-worn vintage one. Whether you’re after a perfecto or a blazer style, a leather jacket will add that little bit of oomph that makes you feel powerful and edgy.
Featured in practically every French film ever made, the trench coat is a must when channeling the Parisienne’s wardrobe. Any article of clothing that is practical, comfortable, and yet still seen as sexy is a no-brainer. Though trench coats are ubiquitous, they still somehow come across as mysterious, especially when paired with heels and sheer black stockings.
Stick with traditional tan or black, and you’ll wear it all the time. Trench coats are fantastic transitional pieces, bridging the gaps between the seasons and acting as an easy coat for spring and fall. Buying one is an absolute must if you live in a rainy climate, because when it’s pouring, the trench coat works with everything from gym clothes to formal dresses. If it’s not pouring rain or freezing cold, a nice trick is to tie the belt in a knot at the back. This helps define the waistline and adds a bit of polish.
BLACK WINTER COAT
Unless you live in a perennially warm climate and never travel, you’ll need a reliable winter coat. A long, classic wool or cashmere version is the most versatile because it works for day or night. Black is the obvious choice because it looks chic, goes with everything, and is the easiest to keep clean (or just appear clean). Thick winter coats can be quite expensive, but there are extremely good values to be had if you shop vintage. Finding the right item at the right price can take more time, but it will always be worth it.
The origins of high heels in general are debated, but stiletto heels were invented by Roger Vivier, who worked for Dior at the time. He was able to reinforce the heel to create a slim line, which he called “the needle.” Stiletto heels provide instant glamour and sex appeal. They make us carry ourselves differently, which then changes the way we feel and the way others look at us. Stilettos can give you a feeling of power, a sense that you can take on anything, except perhaps a lot of walking. But if you find the right pair in a height that works for you, you’ll be surprised at how far you can go in those babies once you break them in. The most practical version of the stiletto is the classic closed-toe pump because it can work year-round for daytime, nighttime, formal events with a dress, or casual events with jeans.
LOW- TO MID-HEEL ANKLE BOOTIES
Spend a little time in Paris and you’ll see a ton of ankle booties. The exact style and proportion varies a bit from year to year, but it is definitely a classic staple. You can wear them with jeans or dresses all year around. The Parisienne does. This is where you can vary from black because tan, mahogany, or chocolate-brown boots will look great with a variety of outfits, even all-black ones.
Obviously every woman needs a great pair of flats. How classic you go is up to you. Ballet flats provide instant femininity, but they can also look too matronly unless styled correctly. Ballet flats are the ideal no-socks-needed shoes. They’re good for spring and fall when it’s not really cold out but sandals don’t feel appropriate. If ballet flats are too classic or too feminine for you, find another flat style that works for you, such as flat boots or sneakers.
Buy one pair of tan, flat K.Jacques strappy sandals and wear them all summer long. Tan looks great with black, white, brown, blue, and multicolored outfits, so you can’t go wrong. Of course, they don’t have to be K.Jacques, but this brand is really worth it. You can buy one pair and wear them for decades. Just as easy-breezy as flip-flops but far more chic, K.Jacques sandals are made in Saint-Tropez of soft, high-quality leather. They’re extremely well made and timeless, and they get more comfortable with time.
In the past, cork was a popular bottom for sandals during wartime because it wasn’t a rationed material. Today, cork is a popular choice for wedge sandals because it’s light yet sturdy. An even more French-approved version of the wedge is the rope-bottomed version, evocative of the Basque espadrille. Both cork- and rope-bottomed wedges are durable; buy a comfortable pair and wear them for decades. Wedges do go in and out of fashion but are generally considered to be in style in summer. In France, the espadrille wedge sandal is always a summer vacation staple.
Though shunned as too American and too touristy decades ago, sneakers have become a must for Parisiens and Parisiennes. The styles change every couple of years, so some years it will be Converse and some years Adidas Stan Smiths or New Balances, but this is another “worth it” investment because you can wear them all the time. Parisiennes wear them with everything from jeans and T-shirts to black wool trousers and long tailored coats. Just don’t wear them with socks (or if you must, buy the kind that don’t show).
LEATHER HANDBAG FOR DAYTIME
Pick one that you can wear every single day and one that suits your lifestyle. Size matters. Be realistic about what you will need to put in it, and keep in mind your frame, body type, and everyday style when choosing a shape. If this is going to be your everyday handbag for a long time, the simpler and less trendy, the better. In many societies, a woman’s handbag is a marker of social status. Luckily this is not the case in Paris. If you see a woman with a big Birkin bag dangling from her arm, she is most likely a foreigner. Simple and subtle—and logo-free—handbags are the norm among Parisiennes.
When shopping for a handbag, make sure to steer clear of counterfeits. Though they’re tempting if you’re on a budget, a Parisienne would never buy counterfeits, and you shouldn’t either. Counterfeiters are notorious for employing child labor in horrible conditions. Plus, fashion is the key nonverbal means you have to communicate who you are to the world. Do you really want to tell the world that you’re a phony?
LEATHER CLUTCH FOR NIGHTTIME
A small clutch for going out in the evenings is a must because it is not elegant at all to carry around a regular-sized handbag at night. Unless you are coming straight from work, avoid bringing a daytime handbag out to dinner, drinks, or dancing. Invest in one good-quality, simple, black, logo-free clutch for nighttime, and you will end up getting a lot of use out of it. It can always be thrown inside your daytime handbag for a desk-to-dinner situation. If shopping online, be careful of the dimensions, making sure that it will fit your phone, keys, lipstick, money, and whatever else you need to carry.
SHEER BLACK TIGHTS
Other than red lipstick, there are few things more Parisian—or sexier—to wear at night than a pair of sheer black tights. They’re slimming, and they’ll keep you (slightly) warm, making them ideal for fall and winter evenings. So put on a pair with a little black dress and channel your inner Helmut Newton girl.
If you live in a climate that gets cold in the winter, add a pair of thick black tights to your list, thus making your shorter skirts and dresses pieces that you can wear year-round. This is where it’s smart to invest in a high-quality pair because they can last for one year or more without snagging. You can buy one pair of warm wool black tights from Wolford or Falke instead of buying countless far-less-warm and far-less-comfortable pairs that are cheaper but that snag easily.
Quintessential for creating the Parisian look and essential for braving a cold winter, a good scarf will keep you warm, comfortable, and polished. Invest in a good black one and keep it for decades. For wool or cashmere winter scarves, here are two ways to wear them: The first way is to fold a scarf in half, put it around your neck, and then pull the ends through the loop and adjust. Easy. This works well if you’re wearing a coat open in the front and want to protect your neck. The second way is best worn as a finishing piece on top of sweaters and coats: put a scarf around your neck, make sure the two ends are of equal length in front, lightly throw one end over the opposite shoulder, and then repeat with the other end and the other shoulder. Tying scarves can be a bit intimidating, but a quick Google search can show you a variety of ways to tie them.
LE SMOKING (OPTIONAL)
The first tuxedo for women, “Le Smoking” was designed by Yves Saint Laurent as part of his Fall/Winter 1966 collection. Offered to women as an alternative to the little black dress, le smoking was incredibly envelope-pushing at the time because it was controversial for women to wear trousers, especially as eveningwear. The legendary American socialite Nan Kempner famously debuted her le smoking suit at Le Côte Basque in New York. When she was refused entry into the restaurant for being dressed unsuitably, she removed the pants portion and walked in wearing only the jacket as a micromini.
Since its debut, le smoking has been reworked by the brand many times, but the signature version features a classic black dinner jacket paired with black wool trousers that have a black satin side-stripe. Obviously your version does not need to be Saint Laurent, but make sure to take your suit straight to a tailor so the fit is impeccable. As eveningwear, a woman’s version of a man’s tuxedo is really a win-win because it’s elegant, comfortable, and particularly appropriate for special work events. Due to its illustrious past, it’s also inherently feminist and a little rebellious, so you can keep Nan in mind and be feisty and fabulous all evening long.