I don’t know about you, but that’s the question I ask myself whenever I get dressed. If I’m ever in a fashion quandary, it’s easily settled with this age-old consideration. Would I see this look thrown on with enviable nonchalance, ambling through the streets of Paris? Would it look out of place in a Provençal drinking hole, sipping aperitifs as the sun sets?
The fashion of the French woman has long been a coveted fixture in the style hall of fame. It has been held-up for decades as the epitome of chic – even the word chic is French. We tend to think French women, particularly Parisiennes, do everything better worth doing better. By that I mean sex, dining, dating and dressing.
For moi? My worship at the altar of Parisienne style stems not from an ingrained sartorial cliche, but more a much-yearned for birthright. My father is a Parisian and though I grew up in London, a part of my heart remains in Paris, and a part of Paris remains firmly in my wardrobe.
I think it’s my way of remaining close to my heritage, ensuring that, even when I’m not back in my father’s Le Marais, I can dress my nationality as though I had strapped my French passport to my chest.
Nothing, as the French would say, too “done.”
Your hair should be styled to look as though it hasn’t been styled. The go-to look is bed head. Ideally you should look as if you have just stumbled out of your lover’s bed (always lover, never boyfriend, it’s far too gauche) and are on your way to a work meeting via the boulangerie.
The ‘morning-after-the-night-before’ is a great jumping off point for any French look. One of the chicest things you can wear is a brilliantly-made shirt that looks as though it could belong to one of your lovers. Toss it on, tuck it into tailored trousers or cropped jeans over a neat small, walkable heel, throw your blazer on your shoulders and trot off to get that morning croissant.
Although, you wouldn’t trot, of course. A French girl never wears a pair of heels she can’t walk effortlessly in, whether that’s into her 2am cab or her board meeting. Ideally you want a slingback Dior mule, with comfortable heel-height, or a classic black court shoe that doesn’t give you bunions. Bunions are not chic.
In the summer, you want simple dresses, white shirts with broderie anglaise collars, loose linen trousers and espadrilles. Espadrilles are chic in Provence or St Tropez, or your familial chateau in the Loire, but never the city; where you must instead be in shoes that make a pleasing clacking sound on the cobbled paths by the Palais Royal.
The dresses should be block colours- white, blue, red- of course, be a patriot after all. Patterns should be calm floral posies, stripes or spots, nothing too outlandish or brash. Maybe a Basquiat print from vintage Jean Paul Gaultier, but nothing else.
Avoiding anything too bold is key here. You will never see a Parisian woman in the tie-dye joggers that became ubiquitous over lockdown. You will never see her in fluro. Neon belongs to your highlighters, to the vests of the gilet jaune, but never to your own personal style.
The overriding theme is classic, something that you can wear eternally, from your teen years till your nursing home. The palette is muted, restrained, ageless. Elegance and insouciance is what you’re aiming for.
I aim for it constantly. I pour over style icons of mine, from Catherine Deneuve and Jane Birkin to Emmanuelle Alt and Monica Ainley. Two of these women- Jane and Monica- are not even French. They are expats who made Paris their home, and absorbed its style, becoming beacons of it in the process. So for me, a Parisian by birth if not by hometown, I feel compelled to fly the flag of my heritage, to bring me closer to my identity, even if it means just abiding by a classic style guide.
Because so much of the French style guide consists of items we consider staples: a black blazer, a great pair of jeans, a trench coat, a black court shoe, a Breton striped tee, a simple red lipstick. These are classic pieces that typically suit every body shape and skin tone. It’s eternal good taste, pieces that will come to the rescue of every sartorial quandary.
It’s why, if in doubt, ask yourself: what would a French girl wear?