Style secrets of chic French women

One quick note about this post: when people talk about “French style,” they’re usually thinking of Parisian women of a certain background. Mostly white, thin, and rich or at least middle class. I want to make sure that’s clear because that’s what most people are referring to when they talk about French style. So that’s what I’ll be discussing – certain Parisian women’s style.

American women have this image of the chic French women: stylish but not trying too hard, long messy bedhead locks, je ne sais quoi. Cool, cigarettes and trenchcoats, those striped Breton shirts. Silk scarves. Berets. And they’ve just thrown it all together that morning before rushing out to get baguettes, which is the only exercise they’ll get that day.

I imagine most actual Parisian women would smile coyly and shake their head gently at that description (that’d be the stereotypical reaction – they could also just go “LOL no”). And if they were honest, they might reveal that they might spend a lot of time combing through clothing racks for the right pieces, doing the perfect cat-eye eyeliner, and they run like bats are chasing them for an hour before their baguette breakfast.

I haven’t spent a ton of time in Paris, but I did go there for a few days a couple months ago and another time for a week or so. Being my observant self, I did take note of how the women there dressed out and about. I haven’t ventured far off the beaten path there but saw my fill and here’s what I’ve observed.

There is a certain Parisian look that I’d describe as understated simple styles with a twist, which I think is the vibe the American women want to go for. It’s actually a studied look that is a large basis of my own style (which also has lots of American influence obviously, along with a touch of the Scandi look). It’s actually kind of difficult to pull off, because it requires:

  • Shopping for the right pieces. A lot of the understated chic thing comes from wearing clothes that are simple, with a twist. Usually in muted colors in uncomplicated shapes, without a ton of loud details like ruffles or cutouts. Doesn’t mean they’re just minimalist plain things, though – the clothes all have details like uneven stripes on shorts, little details on the sleeves of a patterned blouse, mother-of-pearl buttons, a pattern on a skirt, and other little eye-catchers that add interest to an item. Not a plain black tee and black jeans (that’s more of a stereotypical Manhattan look).
    • The trouble is, finding these pieces is difficult in America – most clothes here are either extremely plain (Gap) or very loud/ornate/full of holes (Free People). I have some brand recs below, but you’re generally not going to find these types of pieces at your average American mall. I just haven’t really shopped much since I left NYC b/c I don’t need a lot of clothes, that’s where I discovered these brands/bought them.
  • Excellent grooming. French women wear simpler pieces than what “women who dress well” in America wear – Since the clothing doesn’t provide much distraction, this means more attention goes to your skin and hair. Plus having good skin just makes you look more attractive no matter what you’re wearing. They usually tend to have clean looking hair, too – IDK what that whole greasy French girl hair thing is about, didn’t the French invent dry shampoo to avoid that? Anyway, getting good skin and hair is not so easy for a lot of people (including many Parisian women!)
  • Being thin. This goes for all things style – it’s just easier to look good in clothes if you’re thin. I sat and strolled on the Seine path for an hour or so on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, and saw approximately 1836 runners of all sizes, huffing and puffing past. French people exercise! Sure not all but plenty do. This helps your figure and also your skin.
  • Confidence. There’s this image of Parisian women as being snobs who think they’re better than everyone else. This merely speaks to confidence and/or aloofness, I think – kind of like how everyone thinks the pretty girl in school is a snob, when it’s really just because she’s just not super friendly. They’re confident, they feel good about how they look, and you can see that in their posture and body language – and that’s something we’re all drawn to.

Not all Parisians dress this way – maybe even most – and plenty of Parisian girls dress terribly. I remember one outfit of a young woman sitting in a park in a black camisole bodysuit and bright yellow shorts. I could tell she was wearing a bodysuit because the shorts were fairly sheer. She didn’t seem to be on a walk of shame or anything, she was lounging in that park for hours with her friends, like I was doing. She just chose to dress that way – more Jersey Shore than Parisian chic (and she can do w/e she wants, I was just bothered that I could see her entire buttcheeks :/ ).

How to get the look

As far as specific shopping recs, there’s brands like these which are available in America:

  • APC. Classic French minimalist brand for basics with a (slight) twist. I don’t bother with knit sweaters much anymore because 99% of them pill or otherwise die within a few wears, but APC has good quality knit sweaters.
  • Sandro/Maje. Great jackets in nice shapes and interesting colors – I have a magenta one with a little iridescence that’s a lot of fun but still work appropriate.
  • Vince. American brand, good quality stuff in nice shapes.
  • Equipment. American brand with French roots, they have great silk blouses that elevate outfits.
  • J.Crew. I recommend with some hesitation because of their wildly varying quality, but a lot of their styles have that “simple with a twist” thing that are the bases of this particular Parisian style. I included it nonetheless since it’s widely available.
  • Rag & Bone. My rec for this is similar to J.Crew – I like a lot of their styles, the quality varies wildly though. I’d avoid their knits, but the other stuff of theirs I like.
  • Other brands in this particular midprice French style space include The Kooples, Maison Kitsune, Carven, Rouje, Sezane, Iro – I personally don’t particularly like these brands for reasons ranging from fabric quality to weird fit (The Kooples had absurdly narrow sleeves last I checked), but worth checking out if you have access.

Here’s some you have to go to Europe to get, or you can get it online somewhere surely.

  • Claudie Pierlot. The only French brand that make pants that fit my butt. They made like a 3 month foray into the American market before they decided it wasn’t worth it, I guess? They’re part of the same brand umbrella as Sandro and Maje mentioned above, which means they also make great jackets. And their pants are great too.
  • Comptoir des Cotonniers. They used to be in America for a few years, too – I have a polka dot wool scarf from there with zero itch (!) and a great, lightly padded fall coat that has little details like leather piping, a muted leopard print, and other little bits of interest that a friend remarked on as being like a painting where you kept noticing more details as you looked more closely. That was a hyperbole, my friend did not compare my coat to a painting, but she did say the thing about noticing details. I like their stuff.
  • There’s obviously other brands, can’t think of more off the top of my head and I’d rather not include too many inaccessible stuff – but do give a shout in the comments and let me know of brands I should know about!

This look is more about shopping for the right pieces than anything. I think it’s not totally wrong to say French women can and do easily throw outfits together, and it’s because most of their clothes can all go together – very easy to mix and match. For example I have a navy skirt with an embroidered pattern. You can wear that with literally any top that’s not black.

One of the reasons I like this particular style is that it doesn’t actually require you be a certain age, race, or spend a ton of money – it’s about the design, not necessarily quality or being expensive. I saw lots of older women dressed in similar styles, looking similarly confident and at ease. The one time I got in a line at a bakery for a baguette (ppl stand in line outside D:) I was standing behind a woman about 60, around my mother’s age – she looked great, she seemed cool, and gave me a little smile. She had a bunch of shopping with her and looked like she was prepping for a dinner party, and the bakery was her last stop. I immediately liked her for all these things, but also because she was dressed so well but comfortably, in pretty much clothes I’d wear now (instead of the Eileen Fisher stuff that seems to be the only acceptable clothing for older American women who want to dress comfortably but well). It was cool to observe someone in a future that I could envision myself in – getting a dinner ready to enjoy food in the company of loved ones, in my cozy but comfortable apartment in the 9th arrondissement, feeling just as beautiful as I do now. Fashion is really about a fantasy, and maybe mine is a simple one, but this vibe is certainly something I’m drawn to. And many other women are, too – I think that’s what the obsession with French chic is about, an admiration for another culture’s way of life, and the way their women seem a little more comfortable with themselves than we do.

My year of no shopping

From about July 2017 to August 2018, I didn’t buy any clothing, shoes, or other fashion accessories, other than replacing a few t-shirts for sleepwear/lounging. More than a year of not shopping or buying much of anything material-wise.

I was already well into my year of no shopping last year, having started unintentionally, when I came across Ann Patchett’s column about her year of no shopping. I realized I was doing something similar without meaning to, but decided to keep going and try it out myself. My starting this was due to a combination of a few factors:

  • I was about to start working from home, so didn’t anticipate needing new clothes
  • Having done most of my shopping online the past few years, I was tired of buying stuff just to return 90% of it (and not be quite satisfied with most of the 10% I did keep)
  • I had plenty of clothes – enough to not repeat outfits for a couple of weeks (a very subjective issue, how much clothing is enough – but I thought it was enough for me at the time)

Once I read Ann Patchett’s column and realized I was doing just that, I decided to keep up the experiment for a year myself. The last items of clothing I bought were a couple pairs of chino trousers from Gap, because I wanted to avoid just wearing sweatpants every day. They turned out to be of terrible quality – stretching out a whole size, dye washing out unevenly after a single wash and creating white streaks on the fabric. A good way to cement my decision not to shop for a while, you could say.

Since this wasn’t a personal challenge or anything, I didn’t force myself to stay away from shopping websites or avoid places with opportunities to shop – sometimes I just like window shopping (browser shopping?), and I like and appreciate clothing and style. But I’m also a pretty disciplined person, and for me part of habit enforcement is not forbidding myself from doing something. And as noted, I did buy three t-shirts sometime around April this year to replace some holey ones for sleep and loungewear, because of need. But otherwise, I didn’t buy any wearable item of clothing or shoes or any accessory.

Here are my takeaways – read on after the break!

Read moreMy year of no shopping

Why is fashion on Amazon so cheap?

I’m in the market for crewneck sweatshirts, with the ones in my rotation wearing out after a few years of solid wear. (Please send recs my way if you have any! I’m looking for one that’s brushed on the inside, and don’t have wide necks like a lot women’s stuff do these days…)

I googled “crewneck sweatshirt” and Amazon ads were at the top of the results. Multiple ads had Gildan crewneck sweatshirts being sold for $11. So cheap! How is this possible?

See, it takes about $10 to make a single crewneck sweatshirt at large scale like for Gildan. And to make a reasonable profit after taking into account other costs like shipping, you need to charge about $30 at retail. So it’s likely the seller is actually losing money by charging so little. Why would they sell so cheap?

Some of the items for sale on Amazon for very cheap are probably what you’d expect – general overstock or overruns, where the manufacturer creates more items than are needed. The same stuff that’s sold in stores at a lower price – T.J.Maxx‘s whole spiel.

But another common scenario is that something is wrong with the item due to mistakes in production.┬áNothing is so wrong that it’s unwearable, but there’s an issue that makes it unacceptable for receipt by the customer. It might even be so wrong that they can’t turn around and sell to T.J.Maxx (they probably don’t want Gildan sweatshirts anyway). The seller, probably the manufacturer or someone related, is trying to salvage anything he can, and one way he might do that is to try and sell on Amazon. Let’s see how that might happen.

Read moreWhy is fashion on Amazon so cheap?

Industry secrets: where T.J.Maxx really gets its merch

Despite the ongoing retail apocalypse, there’s a lot of oohing and ahhing about the longtime success of T.J. Maxx. It’s one of the only retailers out there today that’s still doing well, and for good reason. Shoppers love a bargain, being able to buy brand-name goods at a fraction of the full-price value. $20 for a Calvin Klein blouse, worth $80 at regular department stores like Macy’s? Sold!

When asked how it sell goods at such low prices, T.J. Maxx is extremely secretive. It does take the chance to toot its own horn by discussing how it sources goods directly from manufacturers, making all sorts of deals like buying last minute overstock, not including buyback clauses in contracts that require manufacturers to accept returns for unsold goods, and other wheeling-and-dealing behind closed doors that allows it to pass the savings onto consumers.

There doesn’t seem to be much questioning about these supposed tactics from the media that covers T.J. Maxx–it apparently has a history of staying mum and protecting its vendor sources. It projects an image of having insider connections to vendors who would be embarrassed to disclose that they sell to T.J. Maxx. Because of this, while fast fashion retailers like Forever 21 and H&M have been the subject of continued harsh media scrutiny, T.J. Maxx hasn’t been made to answer for its business practices and indiscretions.

As mentioned, T.J. Maxx is extremely secretive about its sourcing. But it’s still possible to make some guesses about its sourcing tactics based on a couple media articles and my dad’s encounters and experiences as a vendor.

Here’s the real deal.

Read moreIndustry secrets: where T.J.Maxx really gets its merch

You’ve won the lottery. Should you hire a stylist?

I love makeover shows. I used to love watching What Not to Wear as a teen: seeing unflattering secret camera footage, watching a woman’s entire wardrobe being trashed while the host stylists bombard her with sassy asides, and then shopping at glamorous boutiques in NYC. Occasionally I’d be confused by the outcome, because the women often seemed to end up looking more matronly by the end, but I mostly enjoyed seeing the huge, dramatic reveals.

Now I know better, though.

The whole point of these shows, which are just another variety of the American reality TV industrial complex, is to manufacture drama by putting people in extremely uncomfortable situations and capturing their reactions (remember those fun house mirrors where they had women show outfits they’d normally wear?). They have to make some kind of massive change happen so they can show the before and after videos. Who cares about the woman’s actual desires and practical concerns for lifestyle? Put her in bling and in white pants! Stilettos! Cut off all her hair and color it platinum blonde, who cares if she’s a busy mom who can’t dye her hair every two weeks!

Stylists are a crutch, and not even a particularly effectively one. They overstyle people into oblivion, put them in impractical outfits, haphazardly toss on unnecessary accessories, and pressure people into wearing uncomfortable heels. Makeup is piled on and hair is cut into often unflattering shapes, just to force some change. The result is people with deer-in-headlights who look like they’re wearing costumes that don’t reflect their personality.

Maybe outside the makeover reality show dimension, stylists can be helpful. Usually not, though. Read on to find out why they’re not the solution to style woes.

Read moreYou’ve won the lottery. Should you hire a stylist?

How Old Navy has better quality than Dolce & Gabbana

A woman wearing a dolce and gabanna dress
Dolce & Gabbana Dress

My family knows a number of people who run dry cleaning businesses here in the U.S. My dad recently spoke with a dry cleaner owner who had to pay out a $2,000 claim to a customer, after the cleaning didn’t go well for her Dolce & Gabbana dress.

How did this happen? Shouldn’t professional dry cleaners know how to clean clothing properly? Why didn’t they look at the care instruction label?

Of course, the answer’s not so simple.

The thing is, it’s often impossible to know how to clean and take care of designer clothes properly. Luxury clothes aren’t made with lasting quality in mind; for better or for worse, artistry and aesthetics are the main concerns. Fabric performance, testing, and quality control aren’t a high priority, and the clothes that get made reflect that. Unlike mass-manufactured clothing, care instructions aren’t developed and tested to see if they’re appropriate. Designer clothes aren’t made with practical concerns, like cleaning, related to actual wearing of clothing in mind.

In contrast, mass-produced garments have to go through many rounds of decisions and inspections before they reach the market. Fabrics are carefully developed and created to ensure they hold up under wear and tear. Inspectors review every step of the garment-making process for quality control. Then additional performance testing is done by a third party lab, which test sample garments to develop care instructions that are appropriate for the items. All of these steps work together to create clothes that meet various standards for consistency, and ensure adherence to industry standards and the ordering company’s specifications for mass-market garments.

Let’s learn more about the contrasting approaches to garment making between large producers and small-lot production for high-end designers. You’ll see they’re almost entirely different industries, even though the end product is similar in the form of clothing. You might see how the operations are so different, that they might as well be considered different industries altogether. Read on to find out more.

Read moreHow Old Navy has better quality than Dolce & Gabbana

Surprising hidden environmental costs of garment-making

I’m a strong advocate of shopping less and owning fewer, high-quality clothing. It’s good for your wallet, it’s easier to organize everything, and there’s a psychological freedom to owning less stuff in general. The normally touted benefits of minimalism. Lots of people seek to build a capsule wardrobe or something similar for these reasons.

But with clothing, there’s even more pressing concerns to be conscientious with purchases. Garment production is a very resource-heavy and highly polluting industry that’s having significant impacts on water quality in many parts of the world. And it’s not just fast fashion–any garment production that occurs at an industrial scale is bound to contribute to toxic chemical dumping, carbon emissions, and solid waste from fabric left over after making the garment. This also includes many brands that tout themselves as eco-friendly.

So what exactly happens between raw materials arriving at a factory and a shirt being created? You might be surprised by just how long the supply chain can be, and how resource-intensive garment making really is.

Read moreSurprising hidden environmental costs of garment-making

Why has clothing quality gone down?

Many people have noticed and commented that clothing quality is increasingly getting worse. It’s something I’ve noticed myself. I have shirts from college that have held up just fine, and even some socks from middle school (American Eagle!) that are perfectly good.

And then I have a pair of chinos from Gap that I just washed for the first time. There are now vertical white lines all down both pant legs, where the dye got washed out unevenly (see photos below). They’ve also stretched out a full size since I bought them.

DON’T BUY THESE. Image from Gap



After one wash… ­čÖü

The general consensus is that clothing quality has gone down sharply in recent years. To figure out why, let’s discuss the fashion industry in recent years, and the pressure faced by manufacturers to implement cost cutting measures that affect the quality of our clothing.

Read moreWhy has clothing quality gone down?

9 wardrobe essentials you’ll actually wear

When I see articles discussing the best pieces for your closet, most of them seem to include items that are impractical, expensive and/or difficult-to-find good versions of. Leather jackets are common, except you can’t get them wet and they’re hard to clean. White button-down shirts are on every “wardrobe essentials” list out there, but most of them are see-through. And for some reason half of these types of lists include Manolo Blahniks (retailing for approximately $625).

I never understood these lists, so I mostly ignored them when I was learning how to dress. It’s a good thing, since I wouldn’t have known how to incorporate them into my daily life as a student or young professional, so it would’ve been a waste of money. That said, I do have a leather jacket but I wear it maybe ten times a year when the weather is just right for it–crisp, cloudless spring/fall days. But again we get that maybe ten days a year in the eastern U.S.

Here’s my complete list of nine essentials for my wardrobe. It’s what I’ve discovered works best for me personally. You might disagree or have other preferences, but the below is what’s been working for me for years and makes up the core of my wardrobe. It’s what I wear about 90% of the time.

  • long-sleeved silk shirts
  • medium wash jeans
  • black trousers
  • light coat to mid-thigh length
  • shift dress
  • structured jacket
  • white sneakers
  • black loafers
  • black tote

It’s kind of a uniform, and allows easy mixing of pieces for work and casual wear. I basically switch out jeans for trousers when I’m dressing casually and then I’m good to go. Below is a more detailed discussion of each item.

Click the images to get through to sources and retailer sites if you want to get a closer look.

Read more9 wardrobe essentials you’ll actually wear

Why are so many white shirts see-through?

A sheer white shirt with a star print.
Sheer white shirt from Equipment. Image from Bloomingdale’s

When I googled this question to see if any answers were out there, I found no answers. Instead I got results like:

– How to find a non-see-through white shirt

– What to wear under a white shirt; and even

– How to wear a sheer shirt, advising you wear a contrasting colored bra under a sheer white shirt.

I guess this is the reason I once saw a woman in a professional office wearing a white t-shirt over a bright purple bra :/

But what about the actual question–why are white shirts so sheer? Why is it so dang hard to find white shirts that aren’t see-through? Especially when the white shirt is mentioned on every style essential list out there.

There’s actually a pretty simple reason why most white shirts are so sheer, even if the exact same style of the shirt in a different color is opaque. To learn why, let’s quickly go over how fabric is made and dyed for a shirt.

Read moreWhy are so many white shirts see-through?