Why the French are not as chic as they think they are

I moved to Paris as soon as I graduated from university writes Audrey Rogers, founder of fashion blog Frassy. With two suitcases and a questionable amount of leopard print, I set up my life on the Left Bank in one of the most bourgeoisie neighbourhoods of the city, the 6th arrondissement. I couldn’t speak a work of French, I had no friends and my expectations were mostly based on features I had seen in French Vogue.

But off I went, fuelled by nothing but a somewhat naïve version of a Paris dream. And over the years, like always in life, dreams merged with reality – and I found out some truths along the way; about French women, about French fashion and what it’s really like to live among what "the industry" has deemed the most sartorially successful nationality. It seems a French passport has become synonymous with chic. I can respect this affirmation but cannot quite agree - and here’s why.

1. Conservative

FrenchStyleimage 2

This is a key component of French style and one that is so rarely mentioned. Parisians, especially, are incredibly conservative. Their sartorial traditions are as stiff as the white collars on their shirts - the aim is to blend in rather than be bold. I always found this to be curious in a city that is heavily celebrated for it’s bohemian and artistic communities. Even among all these eccentrics exists a rulebook, a silent dress code of sorts.

I love a classic wardrobe, in fact I celebrate effortless, simple styles – and the French have indisputably perfected theirs. But should you stray (which I so often do) you will be silently scrutinised on the streets.

I have experienced this repeatedly over the years, all it takes is one colour too many or shoes heeled just a little too high, for a myriad of stares and headshakes. Lou Doillon once observed that French style embraces a certain form of arrogance, an astute claim. Not dressing just like them simply baffles them because, well, why wouldn’t you? They pride themselves on their personal style, and so they should – but I can’t help but think a little less arrogance and a little more innovation would be best.

2. Neutrals and natural

FrenchStyleimage 3

The quintessential French woman will typically wear three colours; black, white and blue, with some variations of cream or beige in the form, traditionally, of a tailored trench. Colour is usually worn as a side note, a red lip or a colourful bag swinging off the arm. Anything too bright or bold will often be frowned upon as garish, their preferred colour palette reflects their absolute sartorial intentions; the French have utmost respect for subdued ensembles.

Being an American, growing up all over Europe, I cannot help but appreciate this French reverence for simplicity – so often we Anglo-women tend to be excessive and overdone in our wardrobes. Too much skin, too many colours, too much makeup – the more, we feel, the better. French women believe that a woman’s clothes should allow room to showcase her intelligence – so they offset their wardrobes with a statement like no other, an inner sophistication. And I must admit, they wear it seamlessly. Their outfits are typically simple; statements they are not – but the clothes on their back are seen as fabric designed to stretch and drape in ways that allow their real beauty to shine; their mind.

3. Quality not quirky

FrenchStyleimage 4

Throughout the film ‘Belle Du Jour’, Catherine Deneuve wore a single pair of Roger Vivier buckled low-heeled pumps. I like to think this symbolises the French woman’s approach to shopping – her wardrobe is a carefully curated collection. Trends don’t exist in her closet, there is no room for impulse buys or frivolity – and quite literally too. Parisian real estate is some of the world’s most expensive - French women don’t often have the luxury of a large wardrobe – so they fill their clothes corners with only the best. She will wear the same shoes most days but will have saved for an expensive and timeless pair.

One stereotype I must confirm is the French woman’s penchant for the classic designer handbag. Chanel, Celine, Balenciaga seem to be their favourites, and they will all have one, perhaps two, used daily - religiously. I too, am a believer of quality. However, I came to France as a poor graduate with suitcases full of bargain buys, over time some of these were slowly replaced with pricier pieces, such as my Chanel bag or Burberry trench. I know I will wear these investments for my entire life but, ultimately, I still like to pair them with those first threadbare blouses and dresses that came to the city with me. And sometimes, it feels that such strict shopping discourages the spontaneity that makes great personal style. So often it has been the cheaper pieces that have become my most beloved, and I cannot help but wonder if it is just too predictable to save for a handbag so many other women already own. At 26, quality is a crucial component of my wardrobe, but I also value quirky – and so here I am in France, still trying to combine the two.

4. Undone but still, done

FrenchStyleimage 5

‘Too much’. I’ve heard these words uttered to me countless times in Paris – it seems to be a sartorial fear for the French. To deem something to be ‘too much’ is to imply that whatever you are wearing should be removed and replaced immediately because it is excessive and uncouth. ‘Too much’ means you’ve tried too hard, and therefore care too much, which is the French antithesis of chic.

Ines de la Fressange put this perfectly when she said: “Dress to feel good, not show off”. This is the key ingredient to French personal style. I admire this. And I can't deny that the way the French dress is remarkably effortless. They choose their clothes with a natural ease and consequently, their style has an inimitable, undone-but-polished quality about it. And the rules to their effortless look lie in that silent, unspoken dress code. It is hard to emulate and even harder to learn what is right and what is ‘too much’, but over the years I have gained a few insights – ironically, this French sartorial ease is anything but easy. It is a full-on struggle.

The top 10 lessons in French style

FrenchStyleimage 6

  1. Wear a trench over everything – under the security of this jacket you can get away with just about anything, from the tightest mini dress to the baggiest, verging-on-sloppy, boyfriend jeans.
  2. Buy several variations of Breton and wear these on a rota. It's a cliche but the French really do love and wear their mariniere stripes.
  3. Choose eyes or lips, apply makeup to only one, leave the other bare.
  4. Brush your hair once daily so that it stays just a little bit tousled.
  5. Denim. Wear a lot of it but in classic silhouettes, skinny or a slight bootleg are Parisian classics.
  6. Invest in a few tailored blazers in solid neutral colours and pair these with everything.
  7. Keep jewellery to a minimum – no chandelier earrings or big chunky necklaces – a few delicate pieces are really all that are worn.
  8. Invest in at least one luxury piece, even if you can only afford the slimmest Hermes scarf – a little bit of luxe goes a long way in the Parisian’s eye.
  9. Colour blocking and print clashing – both styling loves of mine are met with little tolerance in France. By all means wear them but be aware they are not generally appreciated.
  10. Which brings me to my last lesson and probably my finest; as an expat here in France, I have successfully learnt how to balance all of my American ‘too much’ with a precise amount of Parisian ‘just right’. That is really all we can hope for as foreigners, a mélange of our natural sartorial instincts combined with whatever covetable French qualities we choose to adopt as our own. Anything else is impossible and in itself, would probably be… 'too much’.

By Audrey Rogers