Je ne sais quoi. What is it that French women have and the rest of the world attempts to copy? Catherine Deneuve had it, dressed in a little black chambermaid’s dress with her hair in a loose chignon. Dominique Sand had it, with her brows plucked thin and her barely there lipstick posed in a perma-pout. Charlotte Gainsbourg has it right now, wearing little more than a raincoat and jeans. It’s CHIC — that strangely plain yet highly studied casual look that condemns American women to looking forever overdressed. .
Lord knows we try — packing our striped Breton T-shirts for a trip to Avignon and religiously buying French shoes, makeup and perfume in duty free on the way home. But somewhere in the mix that deft restraint and Parisian subtlety gets lost. American style is about the big statement (or several big statements) lavishly endowed into one outfit. Even the classic models at Calvin Klein and Michael Kors are too glossy by French standards, with the shoe, the bag and the hair all competing for their own glory.
French style is always a matter of less. I know this because I have dressed badly in Paris seven times in a row. Sitting in the Café Flore in 1989 I died of shame as the local girls tittered at my sequin beret and garish fishnet stockings. Lesson No. 1 about French dressing: Sexy style is a sneaky affair, nothing blatant will do. Many years and many fishnets later I strolled through the Marais in a very plain black dress, only to discover then the French vixen was baring her back in sheer singlets and loosely cut floral dresses, basking her behind in the spotlight of soft linen yoga pants.
The look was more Bilitis than Britney, more body skimming than body revealing, and ultimately it was both sensual and sympathetic to many different shapes and ages. Impressed, I set forth to distill the essence of French fashion sense, so apparently effortless yet refined and regimented by centuries of practice.
Law No. 1: DECLUTTER
Even if a French woman is wearing a striped top, red shoes, three bangles and jeans she will strive to unify all the elements into a seamless whole. The stripes and the jeans will be a neutral color, the bangles will be bone or cocoa. The French love cocoa and pale honey straw as wardrobe coordinates; they allow accessories to float on a basic canvas and blend a look together.
Law No. 2: DECONSTRUCT
All clothes bar your suit and your classic white blouse must look supple, not starched. And that goes for hair as well. A silky blowout or a simple twisted chignon flatter your face and look sleek yet romantic. Highlights are never harsh and makeup borders on bland. For a good example of French restraint look at Clarins models and Princess Caroline of Monaco. Theirs are looks that melt into one golden natural glow.
Law No. 3: DELIGHT
Despite the fixation with natural and neutral tones,every French woman wears one flirty item: high heels, a leather skirt, a skim of black eyeliner, a choker. The trick is just one item — never two — and that’s the hard part.
Law No. 4: INVEST
A Vuitton bag, a Hermes scarf, a pair of Charles Jourdan heels, diamond earrings…these classics remain the cornerstone of a chic wardrobe no matter your age. The young wear them with jeans and espadrilles, the older with pencil skirts and cashmere sweaters cut low. Kept in immaculate condition, a French woman will wear her Kelly bag for life and simply change the clothes around it.
Law No. 5: BE BOLD
Pleasure in being a woman is the philosophy of French dressing. It begins with lingerie (silk, please) and includes such simple details as an art deco brooch or pair of lace stockings. Dressing to flatter your body and investing in well-cut basics allow for eccentric touches. Find what you love and make it your signature. For couture diva Sonia Rykiel it’s a cloud of red hair; for street chic Agnes B. it’s a sleek cropped leather jacket. For you it might be long flowing hair and short velvet gloves.
Law No. 6: BE DISCREET
Less is so much more! Less clashing color, less blush, less hair gel, less baubles, less ruffles, much less fur — but one ravishing perfume, French of course.
Law No.7: BE GROOMED
Clothes must be immaculately kept. The same goes for hair and makeup. Very glossy hair in a simple ponytail looks better than a structured updo. Eyebrows plucked to perfection lessen the need for heavy eyeshadow and mascara.
Law No. 8: BEDAZZLE
Ironic but true, the beauty parlor is essential to “natural” French style. Facials, hair treatments, endless massage (to keep legs forever in mini skirts) and cellulite balms are all standard practice. Manicure weekly, but choose red nails for holiday only.
FRENCH FASHION ESSENTIALS
- A great white blouse
- A navy blue pea coat cut to the hip
- Tall black boots
- A midi length black pencil skirt
- Black kid gloves
- Acres of cable knit cashmere in cocoa and honey
- A studded domino bag or striped tank
- Red high heels
- A wrap dress in black jersey
- A pirate shirt with embroidered sleeves worn with a waistcoat