The French sense of fashion, which is, quite simply, impeccable, and beyond reproach, makes woman worldwide wonder how to get the look. From the corporate V.P. in the metro to the serveuse at the local café, Parisiennes possess a stylish glamour that is refined, understated, yet entirely irrefutable. And everyone who has visited the French capital, disgruntled tourist or not, knows it.
The above statement, then, begs the following question: What is it, precisely, that makes French women so elegant? The good news for those of us without Galician bloodlines is this: Glamour and grace are not genetic traits. Rather, the Parisian sense of style is the result of a carefully cultivated, but surprisingly simple, approach to clothes.
Les Françaises are always in fashion because, rather counter-intuitively, they don’t follow fickle fashion: Instead, they stock their closets with chic, high-quality staples that they dress up or down with trendier (and more disposable) accessories, shoes, and bags. My mother once rather cynically suggested that this less-is-more theory was forced upon Parisian women by the pitiful lack of closet space in their tiny apartments. She may have been, in part, correct - after all, the walk-in closet is a foreign concept here. Still, I prefer to think of it as a conscious choice of quality over quantity, a sort of streamlined Feng-shui view of wardrobe-building that is far superior to my own helter-skelter tactics. The basic gist is this: The average French woman would rather blow out a month’s salary on a classic Chanel suit than spend smaller amounts throughout the year on armfuls of throw-away shirts from H&M.
Yes, this requires a fair amount of self-restraint, but you’d be surprised how far a couple of key, timeless items can get you. The following is our list of the basics that every woman should possess to reach that sublime state of je ne sais quoi:
A scarf, preferably in a luxe fabric like silk or pashmina. Admittedly, the French/scarves thing initially comes across as cliché taken from movies and popular culture: It seems that every French personality, from Bridgette Bardot to Maurice Chevalier to Pepé le Pew has been seen on the big (or little) screen wearing one, as a sort of external mark of his or her nationality. Yet, there’s simply no way around it: Everywhere you look, and in all kinds of weather, Parisians are wearing scarves – silk foulards knotted at the neck, long pashminas thrown over shoulders, summer-weight metallic numbers that spice up an evening look. In fact, the scarf is so present in the consciousness of the French wardrobe that a Parisian friend once actually admitted (not entirely un-snottily) that French women (herself included) can pick out fellow natives just by looking at how they tied their scarves.
The right pair of jeans: Don’t listen to any friend, relative, or guidebook who tells you that no one in France (or Europe, for that matter) wears jeans. While this theory may have held water several decades ago, today it’s simply not true: Blue jeans are as much a staple item here as they are in the Anglo world. That said, the French take on denim is a bit different than ours: Rather than seeing it as a homogenous entity, French women are well aware that not every jean is the same. Bootcut is heavily weighed against straight-leg, pocket details are viewed with a critical eye, and shades of blue are carefully considered. In such basic staples, it’s the smallest details in appearance - and, most importantly, in fit - that make all the difference. The vrai Parisienne doesn’t go home (or pull out her wallet) until she’s found just the right pair.
A well-cut blazer: Whether it’s pinstrip, leather, or tweed, the blazer is a perennial Parisian favorite because of its incredible versatility. You’ll see hipsters wearing them with funky sneakers and jeans, businesswomen donning them with pencil skirts and heels, and elegant dames pairing them with flats and trousers. The right blazer goes with everything and can be dressed up or down as needed. In the right color (black is a good choice, although any neutral color works as well), it can worn year-round, over camisoles in the summer and with sweaters in the winter. The key is finding the right cut for your body: Parisian versions tend to be fitted but roomy enough to layer underneath and graze the tops of the hipbones.
At least one drool-inducing item of incredibly sexy lingerie: It’s what’s underneath that really counts, and the French know it. (Plus, it would just seem wrong if the women living in the erotic capital of the world weren’t themselves a little, well, eroticized). On the underwear front, Paris has definitely taken to heart its reputation for sauciness, offering up every shape, kind, and brand of bras and panties imaginable. Just knowing that you’re wearing a little bit of silk/lace/satin/cashmere will be enough to put enough bounce in your step that you exude confident sexiness. And attitude is more than half the battle on your way to elegance.
A little bit of bling: Even though Paris is a long way from the West-coast ‘hoods of P-Diddy and Beyoncé, Parisians don’t underestimate the power of eye-popping sparkle. You’ll rarely see even the most average metro-riding mademoiselle without a little something that glitters. It’s with accessories that French women take their basic wardrobe from day to night, and add a zing of individuality to their ensembles.
In the end, however, wardrobe staples or no, the elegance of the French woman is all about her attitude, and the cool confidence that she has in her own skin (and her own clothing). The French woman uses clothes not a means to obtaining glamour, but as a way to highlight that which already exists. Take your queue from the incomparable Coco Chanel, who once said to “Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.” And how right she was.
-Brenna Fleener, Paris Correspondent
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