Lifestyle & Culture

Alice Verberne unpacks French fashion: The chic décontracté look isn’t just about what you wear, but how you wear it

With all the hype surrounding “Emily in Paris” and French fashion, here are a few tips to look like a real Parisian. Emily’s duds are trendy, but not necessarily stylish.

The difference between trend, style and fashion might seem subtle to many people. But to the French, style is something timeless, while trends are faddish.

French fashion follows more of what the characters Camille and Sophie wear in “Emily,” and both are excellent examples of French style.

There is a certain je ne sais quoi about French style that is relaxed yet glamorous. French women dress as if they just threw on some clothes but look like a million bucks. Don’t let it fool you; this effortlessly elegant attitude is quite orchestrated.

It’s called chic décontracté, or casual chic.

Fashion designers say a classic French wardrobe is built on:

• quality pieces you love that fit properly

• items you feel confident wearing

• pieces that reflect your personal style

To me, that advice still seems vague. One way to get a feel for French style is to look at their cultural icons. Watch films, follow news programs or read periodicals to spot eminent French figures in cinema, music, art and politics.

Here’s a short list of my personal favorites:

Inès de La Fressange

Anne-Sophie Lapix – journalist: practical work clothes, sporty look.

Audrey Lombard – veterinarian: 438k daily influencer, efficient, life beyond fashion.

Bridget Bardot – bombshell: hair, makeup, beach style.

Catherine Deneuve – actress: Yves Saint Laurent smoking jacket.

Carla Bruni – former First Lady of France: rocker/model, jeans, gowns, power suits.

Charlotte Gainsbourg – singer: daughter of Serge, slim tailored beatnik looks.

Claire Chazal – news anchor: business casual, sheath dress, pumps.

Coco Chanel – fashion guru: black dress, sailor shirt, tailored, old-school classic.

Francoise Madeleine Hardy – beatnik, singer: copied by other celebrities.

Inès de La Fressange – aristocrat: active wear, cropped pants, trust-fund attire.

Romy Schneider – German/Austrian/French actress: many Miss France contestants copy her.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette – cosmetics guru/writer: audacious risk-taking feminist.

Now, add your favorite French style icons to the list to complete a swipe file that works for your personalized look.

Making YOUR French style practical

Your personal situation will determine your apparel decisions. The weather and your location also play a major role in what you will wear. Here’s a trick to narrow down your options. Pick a French local with meteorological conditions and topography similar to yours.

Examples:

Parisian: cool/wet climate, urban streets, work, cultural events (trench, shoes, suits, gowns).

Riviera: dry/sunny climate, beach, vacation, coastal life (wraps, sandals, cotton).

Mountains/Countryside: mixed climate, great outdoors, farmers markets (performance gear, boots).

NOTE: No matter the location, have:

• a well fitted t-shirt.

• button-up jeans.

• woven basket (for grocery shopping).

Voilà, chic décontracté simplified!

Another trick is to imagine packing your suitcase to a destination that you would typically go to in France. The items that go in the suitcase are more than likely your wardrobe must-haves. What you leave out of your suitcase is an indication as to what you may not really need. Consider getting rid of those items.

Signature feel: To thine own self be true

You will want to consider what clothing fashion personality type you are. There are as many styles as there are influencers. Here is a short list to get you started:

Justine Leconte – French born (South of France), NYC Fashion Institute of Technology-educated designer currently based out of Berlin. Justine teaches everything from fashion illustration to what makes French clothing “French.”

Lola Rykiel – Parisian living in NYC. Child model in an all woman family and granddaughter of fashion icon Sonia Rykeil. Lola defies following rules and talks more about presence: How one walks and how looking French is about attitude. Her brand is Pom Pom.

Camille Rowe – French-American (Paris/New York/California) model/actress. Blends French chic with American lifestyle. Talks about what she would never wear in Paris and likes vintage/thrift finds. Camille is a bit edgy. She posed for playboy and her mother was a dancer at the burlesque Le Lido Club.

Caroline de Maigret – The face of Lancôme, international model/music producer known for her androgynous street style, trench coats and bangs. Sorbonne educated with a sporty mother and an aristocratic grandfather from Polish royalty.

Influencers seem to agree on the following:

• Invest in quality key pieces: handbag, shoes, gloves, scarf, little black dress, expensive t-shirt, tailored jeans. Buy the best quality possible, whether it is second-hand or from a designer shop.

• Jewelry: understatement is key. Trends vary, but the consensus is that one nice heirloom piece and one other piece of jewelry suffices. Avoid “matchy-matchy” earrings, bracelet and necklace combos.

• Putting it all together.

• Pick a signature base color (black, kaki, navy, white, brown) for your main outfit.

• Choose two signature colors to add to your base color. These are usually a bit more flashy (red, yellow, green, pink, purple, blue).

• Main outfit: dress, slacks/pants, top, swimsuit, jogging outfit as base color.

• Matching accessories: handbag, purse, shoes, belt, gloves (all in one signature color).

• Outerwear: trench/sweater/beach throw (all in one signature color).

• Wildcard: tights, scarf, hat, eyewear, nail polish (all in an alternate signature color).

You don’t have to shop at Hermès. You can find bargains in France at Emmaus, Croix Rouge, flea markets, vintage and second hand shops (both bricks-and-mortar and online). Folks who want to buy new clothes always have the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris where you can find luxury brands as well as major department stores such as Galleries Lafayette and Printemps. Check online retail for those who can not shop in person.

Most French women say ditch gimmicky trends and fads, toss those fun-run t-shirts and avoid wearing sports gear and Birkenstocks in public. Not to say that a person could not try to look French wearing them. What seems to matter most is how you wear them.

Author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette once said: “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”

About the author:

Alice Verberne is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience writing for magazines and newspapers in both Europe and the United States. 

Alice spends her free time painting and sculpting at the Villa Vatelotte, a meeting place for artists and artisans in rural France.

See all of Alice’s posts here.

See her posts about wine here.

See Dispatches’ France archive here.

Website | + posts

Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in one of the Petites Cités de Charactère de France (a small city of character) where she enjoys chatting with visitors and adventuring with locals.

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