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.

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?

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?

Why are my t-shirts so sheer?

overly sheer t-shirt
A tissue tee, available for $62. Photo from Shopbop

I just had to throw out yet another t-shirt that I bought last summer. It had small holes in the sleeves and had lost its shape, especially in the collar. I didn’t think much about it when I bought it–it was $5 at a sample sale. I don’t think I even bothered trying it on.

It was a tissue tee.

Tissue tees, which have other names like slub-knit, are really common in the women’s apparel market today. You’ve probably seen them at retailers ranging from Old Navy to Neiman Marcus. They’re thin, flowy shirts with a loose shape that hang off your body a little.

Even though these tees come in every color, all of them tend to be pretty sheer–even in black. One of the other tees I got rid of, also purchased last year, is a dark grey. Somehow, even that shirt is sheer. I was frustrated and talked about this with my dad, who has worked as a vendor in the garment industry for 35 years.

Read moreWhy are my t-shirts so sheer?

What this is

Welcome to Garb Guide!

This is a place to learn about clothes – how they’re made, how to buy and take care of them, how to style them.

Not all of us have well-dressed French grandmothers to teach us these things. But if you’re here, you do have the Internet!

Perhaps like you, I struggled for a long time with figuring out how to dress well and appropriately for my body and my lifestyle. I did eventually figure out how to dress appropriately, and am at a point now where I feel good with the clothes I own and wear.

Unfortunately, most of that learning was by trial and error, and looking pretty meh for most of my 20’s. I wasted a lot of money, time and resources that I’ll always feel guilty about. Hopefully I can help you avoid or stop doing that!

Garb Guide also discusses a lot about the specifics in manufacturing. My dad has been working in the fashion industry for 35 years in various roles, and can provide some technical knowledge and tell us about the realities of making garments. Most people don’t realize what a precise, difficult science garment manufacturing it is, so I hope this can provide some knowledge about what goes into creating our clothes and how they’re made.

I made this website to be your guide to all things clothes. I look forward to sharing my knowledge and for learning even more from you!