French women — particularly Parisians — have long been praised for their innate style sense. After six long years of observing them in their natural habitat, I finally feel ready to bring you their secret je ne sais quoi.
When Considering an Outfit, Start at the Head…
Really, this is part style, part fashion. French women are always concerned about what’s going on at the top of the outfit — after all, it’s often the first thing that you see. Hair is always styled, usually in a disheveled-on-purpose sort of way. There are also quite a few “alternative” hairstyles, like the asymmetrical bob, full or partial dreadlocks, or something called a carré, which is an Amélie-style haircut: short in the back and longer in the front. An inverted mullet, if you will.
But the obsession with the tête doesn’t stop there: in the winter, no one is without a hat. It’s almost as necessary as the omnipresent scarf.
The hat can take the same, ironic tone of the purposely messy hair; the theme this winter has been the knit caps with pom-poms on them that I got made fun of for wearing in the sixth grade. And yet, somehow, they make it work.
… and Don’t Forget the Toe
We’ll get to the part in the middle momentarily, but one all-important element of that elusive French style is shoes. Not terribly surprising, though many women forget it. A big fad this year is the wedge sneaker, but you can never go wrong with a simple black boot, avec or sans stiletto heel.
On that note, a word of caution: walking on cobbled streets in talons aiguilles, or “needle heels,” as they’re called here, is to be attempted only by pure-blooded Parisians. All others risk an embarrassing faux pas, consisting of falling into the dog merde that, while less prevalent than in past years, is still a somewhat decorative element of Parisian sidewalks.
Pick One Stand Out Item, and Dress Around It
Parisians aren’t afraid to have fun with their clothes. Most of the French women I know own at least one or two outlandish pieces, and they have quite a bit of fun dressing with them. But they also know how to show off that one piece.
This sort of balance can come in many forms: patterns are worn, but the cut of the clothes is simple and neat; or one fun piece is worn, like a faux-fur jacket or neon pleather skirt, and the rest of the outfit is muted in colors like black or beige. Let that one piece do the talking; the rest of the outfit merely consists of back-up singers.
One great way to foray into this arena is with a great, funky bag. Because it’s somewhat detached from the rest of the outfit, there’s something a tad less scary about it.
Color Coordination is Fun
When I first moved to Paris, I joined a gym. It was a short-lived endeavor, but there it is. On one of the few occasions that I actually went, I saw a fit woman in her early fifties get dressed, starting with a matching set of violet lingerie, topped with plum stockings, a lavender slip, mauve skirt and grape, satin blouse. She looked like she had taken a bath in wine. It kind of worked.
I’m not advocating dressing like a piece of sour candy, but there is something to be said for a bit of color coordination. If your shoes are a really bright color and you happen to have a headband, scarf, handbag, or even a jacket in the same color, you’re going to draw some approving looks. (Not from actual French people. Giving an approving look would be showing that they care.)
Which brings me to my final point…
Attitude is 98% of the Battle
Many of the outfits that I think look pretty fierce on some of the women I see walking around in Paris would look a mess on me. Why? I lack the confidence to pull them off. French women walk out the door knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt how amazing they look. And in believing it to be so, they make it true.
Voilà. Now you know.