Americans tend to idealize French style, because it sums up what we want – natural beauty, effortless cool, mystery, allure. Je ne sais quoi translates to “I know not what” – it’s that thing you can’t put your finger on, the thing that can’t be nailed down to 5 Easy Steps, that something that your coolest friend has. Not just confidence, not just physical beauty, but an indefinable draw. Cards on the table, I can’t really try that on. It is beyond me. But there are aspects of French style that I love and I am traveling to the south of France in the fall, so I am definitely in the mood to give it a try!
Black-and-white striped top, black skirt, black flats. Pretty classic. For this week, I tried to go by Coco Chanel’s rule of “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I tried to simplify each outfit. If an accessory didn’t have an impact, I didn’t wear it. Even with the simplest outfit, there are ways to give it personality and make it unique.
I decided to wear my glasses, because glasses are an accessory with an immediate impact. They have the ability to completely change a look. It’s very French to work with what you’ve got. What makes you look like you? Glasses betray that I have a weakness – I’m genuinely nearsighted. But that weakness is a part of who I am and what makes me me. I like my glasses, because they help me see and I like how they look. We don’t have to look physically perfect. Beauty isn’t pretending we have no weak points. Beauty is simultaneously telling the truth and concealing the truth. Being honest and keeping secrets.
The shirt has a boxy fit, so I tied it up and changed the shape to suit me. French women know how to wear clothes well. They don’t let clothes wear them. They will alter the clothes and make sure everything fits.
Your lifestyle affects what you wear. One major logistical aspect of French style is that French women walk everywhere – it’s something that they take into consideration. It’s about a thirty minute walk from my house to where I work, so I decided to walk to work one day and pick a cute outfit that would stand up to it.
A few thoughts that went through my head during the picking process:
- It needs to be comfortable for the whole day – not just for walking, but for work as well. The outfit needs to be multi-functional, because athletic clothes would be very comfortable for walking, but inappropriate in a professional context. No matter how comfy sweatpants are, they would make me uncomfortable at work.
- It needs to be cool and breathable. Otherwise, I will arrive at work a complete sweaty mess. It’s hard to maintain a cool and mysterious aura when completely drenched.
- Shoes. I can’t walk very far in heels. Even comfy ones. French women can, but I know my limits. Flats, then.
Going by that criteria, I picked out one of my favorite dresses. It was one that I actually wore a lot when I was in France. Stretch jersey, a neutral print, a couple of details (ruffle sleeves, tie waist), and a great fit. Light enough to keep me cool all day, pretty enough to make me happy all day. That’s why it is one of my all time favorites.
I only had accessories that helped me out. Sunglasses – pink ones that make me think of la vie en rose and that line in Sabrina (“Only in Paris, where the air is pink, does that song make sense.”) Shoes – compact black Nike sneakers that transitioned well from the walk to the office. I’ve heard the NEVER WEAR SNEAKERS IN EUROPE advice a lot, but it really depends on the sneakers.
The walk was wonderful. Contemplative, unhurried, a good time for sorting through thoughts and planning out the day. Appreciating often-overlooked processes is a beautiful part of French life. Enjoying meals and making the meals, enjoying the process of getting ready, enjoying walking to work and walking back home from work. In The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a wise fox tells the little prince about the importance of ritual:
“It would have been better to come back at the same hour,” said the fox. “If, for example, you come four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you… One must observe the proper rites…”
“What is a rite?” asked the little prince.
“Those also are actions too often neglected,” said the fox. “They are what make one day different from other days, one hour from other hours.”
There are sweet rhythms and rituals to life – enjoy them and make them into something beautiful.
French style is sexy. Undeniable fact. But it’s more complicated than a see-up, see-down, see-through sexy. It’s a mix of covered and uncovered. It’s the allure of having a secret. On a date, you probably don’t want the whole restaurant and your date to have the same reaction to your outfit. A sliver of shoulder that only your date can see is just as alluring and has the added allure of mystery. To quote The Little Prince again, “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” There’s always more to be discovered.
I wanted to create a low-key mix with this covered/uncovered feel. The color scheme was neutral again, but the lovely light neutrals that you see all over France in the summertime. French women love their neutrals, but they also dress seasonally. Black in the winter, cream and navy in the summer. Black might make an appearance in a linen summer dress, but it isn’t the predominant color scheme.
For this look, I chose a cream lace shirt and layered it over a gray camisole. I love this top – it combines the sheerness of the lace with a very classic shape (high neck, short sleeves, a structured fit). I wanted to wear linen at some point this week, so I brought out my tan linen shorts. They are loose and comfortable, with a natural ease to them. Mushroom-colored heels that cover the foot finished off the ensemble.
I didn’t wear any eye makeup on that day – not even mascara. I wanted all the focus to be on the lips, so I put on foundation, then mixed red and bright pink lipstick for a really bright lip. The whole look made me feel very beautiful.
This day wasn’t much of a clothes day, because I got to work and immediately started feeling sick and dizzy. So I came home and got into pajamas. But before the pajamas, I wore a new favorite dress – an oversized denim shirt dress that is the perfect blank canvas for bold accessories.
Spikey shoes and hammered silver earrings and a textured ponytail. Mascara and eyeliner. Cool look. But when you feel sick, you just don’t care.
When I get sick, I get dizzy and faint. Then I get scared to drive, because I am afraid of passing out and crashing and generally being a danger to myself and others. It’s best for everyone if I just get back into bed and sleep until I feel not sick. Kind of a waste of an outfit, but again – I just didn’t care at that point.
Day 5: Femininity
After spending Thursday in bed, I got up on Friday and felt like a new woman. To celebrate, I put on one of my prettiest dresses. It’s an ultra-feminine little number in a blue and white floral pattern, with a fit that makes the world a better place.
For all my confidence, I kind of steer away from this dress, because it’s so girly and pretty. Just writing that down makes it sound stupid, but it’s the truth. It’s easier to wear something quirky/interesting and be the person in the background. This dress gets noticed.
In movie costuming terms, this is a romantic lead outfit, not a quirky best friend outfit. Maybe that is part of the indefinable beauty of French women – maybe they naturally step into that lead role without thinking too hard about it. I do tend to shy away from anything that seems romantic, because I’m perpetually single. Sometimes it seems like a waste to wear pretty things, but it isn’t. Life is short. Wear the pretty things. Wear them in celebration, wear them in confidence.
This was a busy week, so I wanted to simplify all my fashion decisions. What could be simpler than starting every outfit with a t-shirt and jeans? It’s a great blank canvas.
Day 1: Fancy
I like to dress up a little bit on Mondays – it helps jumpstart the week. I started off with an embellished black tee with some gather details and scattered embroidery. It’s a swing shape, which means it fits through the shoulders then floats out from there. Since the t-shirt was on the looser end, I picked out jeans in a fitted shape (to contrast with the looseness of the top) and in a dark wash (to keep the whole outfit feeling fancy).
I was much more aware of my shoe choices this week. I tend to spend more time picking out my clothes, then grab shoes on my way out the door. Since I themed my clothes with simplicity in mind this week, it gave me a little more time to think about shoes and accessories.
I went with some of my very fanciest shoes – black, gold, and cream heels that can easily overpower an outfit. With jeans and a nice t-shirt, the shoes got to stand out in a good way. Along with a simple gold chain necklace, that was the extent of my accessorizing, but the shoes pack a punch. The complete outfit pleased me, because everything worked together and balanced out. The shape of the jeans balanced out the shape of the top, the colors in the shoes mimicked the colors in the top. It felt polished without any layering required.
Day 2: Faded and Soft
Since I went for a more polished look on Monday, I wanted to focus on a soft, lived-in look for Tuesday. The top has a breezy soft feel and a gray-and-white stripe woven into it. It’s one of those rare, beautiful, and elusive creatures, the well-designed neutral tee. If you see one of these creatures, capture it.
I picked soft, faded jeans and layered on a white jersey cardigan. I wanted the outfit to feel like a flower that’s starting to fade, when the edges start curling and the petals soften. My scuffy brown Oxford shoes and pale brown glasses kept everything in that same light neutral color palette.
The outfit was nice on its own, but it was an especially lovely background to highlight my favorite summer scarf. There are a lot of colors on the scarf – the background is peachy pink and the foreground pattern is a bright blue and orangey red floral. It was from a sidewalk sale in France and it’s one of my favorite things. If there’s something you love to wear, create an outfit around it!
Day 3: Pattern Mixing
The weather was chilly and rainy, so I needed another layer. I love blazers – they take the same amount of effort as sweatshirts, but look way cooler. So instead of a sweatshirt or a plain sweater or a jean jacket, I went for a print blazer.
The print combination dazzled and disoriented the eye. Pretty prismatic. Bold to the point of foolhardy. The only reason it kind of worked was the dark jeans and shoes. I went for a bolder shape on the shoes- they have cutouts and peep toes, but they are black, so they didn’t add to the pattern craziness.
I enjoyed this outfit – it didn’t feel like a typical t-shirt and jeans outfit, but it didn’t require extra effort. It just required extra confidence. It is easy to equate simple with safe or boring, but it doesn’t have to be either one!
Day 4: Smiling Sushi
I found this smiling sushi shirt at the Salvation Army and I immediately loved it. It has probably become obvious that I like some eccentric clothes… this one is pretty out there. But it fits great, it seems brand new, and it feels nice.
Since the shirt was so different, I decided to opt out of the typical blue jeans, and go for a burgundy skinny jean. They’ve actually been a very versatile pair of jeans for me. I highly recommend a non-blue pair of jeans.
This outfit was just a tee and jeans, but it lots of personality, thanks to the details and color. Smiling sushi can make any day happier!
Day 5: Layering on the happiness!
The aforementioned Salvation Army visit resulted in a lot of prints, including a button down shirt in a super-bright / bird-of-paradise / tropical print. I adore a tropical print and they are very on trend right now – Dolce and Gabbana released a haute couture resort collection based around a custom tropical leaf print last year, etc.
It’s a lot of print, so I kept it open and layered it over a black tee. That breaks up the print and the black grounds all the bright colors.
Dark ankle-length jeans and pointy black flats gave it a little 1960s vibe to me. Like Gidget Goes Hawaiian or something.
This week was a great palate cleanser – getting ready made easy! I found myself focusing on one thing in the outfit (shoes or a scarf or a print). The framework was all set up, then it was easy to infuse personality into the outfit.
I think we all have those things in our closet that seem too fancy to wear on an ordinary basis. But are they? I’ve heard of “dressing down” clothes, but does it actually work? This week, I tried dressing down some of my harder-to-wear fancies and I was pretty happy with how it worked!
First fancy: Sequin Top
I found this top at a consignment store and bought it because SPARKLES, but haven’t worn it that much, because sparkles. But it is a good top – the fit is nice and it’s from Ann Taylor (therefore quality). It definitely deserves to get worn more. But how to wear a sparkle shirt to work and not feel overly dressed-up? In this casual climate, Sparkly Top + Jeans + Heels = the dress code for Going Out For Cocktails With Girlfriends. I wasn’t going out for cocktails. I was going to work. And jeans were still my best option, so I needed Flats.
At that point, I had sparkle top + jeans + flats, all solid colors and all dark. So I either needed something bright or something print, to set off all the dark colors. I was in more of a monochromatic mood, so I decided against a bold color and went for a bold print blazer in neutral colors. So the outfit ended up being sparkle top + jeans + flats + print blazer.
It was a cool outfit – I felt like kinda rock-and-roll, like a bass player in an all girl rock band. Not the lead singer, who would need a more attention-grabbing outfit, but a casually cool background musician. Not trying too hard is the essence of cool. I think the success of the outfit came down to the shoes. If I had worn heels with this outfit, I would have been self-conscious about being too dressy.
My takeaway from this outfit: If the outfit looks too much like a Going Out For Cocktails outfit, wear flats. Also, I really like the mix of sparkles and print. That’s pretty cool.
Second fancy: Major Shoes
These shoes are a lot of shoe. They have black and white and gold and straps and buckles and the things. They are beautiful and intimidating, so I usually find myself going for another pair. It’s like if you’re recording an album and you have to decide between a diva who is notoriously difficult and doesn’t play well with others, and a singer who is almost as good, takes direction well, and gets along with all the musicians. It’s tempting to pick the solid singer and not deal with the diva. Sometimes you don’t want the drama.
That’s how I feel about these shoes. But they have so much going for them, I really should wear them more. I didn’t want anything too matchy, so I tried to limit the black in this outfit. That ruled out black pants, so I went for a pair of maroon skinny jeans. That way I also didn’t have the blue jean problem of trying to figure out whether to go for a light, medium, or dark wash. Because there are codes and standards and self-imposed rules that we believe about jeans. Sometimes it is easier to bypass the blue jeans and all the arbitrary denim rules by choosing jeans in a completely different color.
I wanted some print, because that made the first outfit look pretty cool, so I grabbed a dark floral top. Because everything was leaning towards dark colors, I decided against a black jacket (and a black jacket would have made it look more formal than I wanted). A light grayish/tannish tweed jacket lightened up the whole look. I really enjoyed this outfit and it reminded me of all the things I love about those crazy shoes. I’m going to be more relaxed about what I wear them with and just use them the way I wear black pumps. Don’t be afraid of the diva shoes – learn to enjoy the drama and don’t worry about it!
My takeaway from this outfit: Your statement shoes probably go with more than you think! Do you have fancy shoes left over from a wedding? Give them another try. Heels can literally (and figuratively) elevate an outfit. Life is too short to afraid of your own shoes.
Third fancy: Velvet Skirt
Between the cranberry velvet and the satin cummerbund belt, this skirt falls squarely into the Christmas Party realm (especially if I paired it with the sequin top from that first outfit). It looks so christmassy, it seems a little wrong to wear it in the springtime, but there isn’t any real reason not to wear it and velvet is very in right now.
The first decision I had to make was whether to tuck the shirt in. NO. It was a pretty easy decision, because I think the skirt waistband looks a little fussy and cummerbundish. Also, there’s a random button. Also, it is satin. So it’s a hard no on the tucking in – the added benefit of untucked shirts is that it kicks the formality down a few notches. I went for a black and white buttondown shirt that is loose and long, then added a green jacket a bit shorter than the shirt. A shorter jacket cheats the eye into seeing a longer leg line and draws some attention to your waist. I needed all the leg help I could get, because I wore flats with this one.
My takeaway from this outfit: If you don’t like one aspect of a piece, cover it up. Nobody needs to know that shirt has weird sleeves – wear a jacket. Nobody needs to know how low the neckline is on that dress – wear a sweater on over it and pretend it’s a skirt. Nobody knows and nobody cares. It’s a comforting thought.
Bonus outfit: Easter Shoes!
This one came before I set the challenge, but I loved pulling out the crazy bridesmaid shoes for Easter. I hesitated, because I wasn’t sure whether they would match the tone of the dress and the jean jacket. But I COULDN’T RESIST BECAUSE THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL. That is all. Check out all the crazy sparkles!
I enjoyed this week – it made me realize that I put some clothes into an arbitrary Wear Only For Special Occasions category. And they don’t have to be off limits – it’s not like they are beaded ball gowns. I feel like I got some of my clothes back.
Live boldly! Wear your pretty things! Enjoy the things you have while you have them.
Thanks for reading my blog – if you have anything you want me to try, let me know!