How to Dress Like French Women: 12 Fashion Secrets to Steal

Leah Bourne
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How to Dress Like French Women
Photo: Victor Boyko/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images.

Have you ever found yourself staring at photos of Parisian It-girls like singer Lou Doillon or actress Clémence Poésy and wondering how they look so utterly perfect all of the time? You aren’t alone. When it comes to style, the French do it better. Hell, they pretty much do everything better: They eat better, they drink better, and they definitely dress better.

Break down the wardrobes of these women, and the style rules they live by begin to crystalize: Forgo a trendy embellished sweatshirt for a perfectly fitted LBD dress you’ll wear for years, for one. Invest in a few classic luxury items, like a Hermès Kelly, knowing it will ultimately be a value spread over time. And above all, work to perfect a unique style all your own, because half the battle when it comes to dressing well is feeling good in what you are wearing.

MORE: The Beauty Routine of a French Perfumer

To that end, we’ve compiled the 12 fashion rules that the most stylish Parisian women live by. Just because you aren’t French doesn’t mean you can’t dress like you are.

1. Say ‘No’ to Most Trends, and Develop a Signature Look

“Please don’t ask me about trends,” style setter Julia Roitfeld told Vogue. “I’m into buying clothes that make me feel pretty, that flatter me, but I have never cared about having the latest thing.” Parisian fashionistas develop a signature look, and stick with it. They might update their wardrobe with a few trends, but they always stick to a similar aesthetic. This also makes shopping a heck of a lot easier.

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Photo: Getty Images.

2. Perfect Tousled, Sexy Bed-Head Look

Ever notice how French women never seem to have hair that looks fussy? When fashion editor Carine Roitfeld shows up on the red carpet in an evening gown, she always wears her hair down. It barely seems brushed, yet it looks utterly perfect and sexy. Get the look yourself with Bumble and Bumble Surf Spray ($27 at Sephora), which will add a sexy wind-blown look to your hair. Or, try your luck simply waking up and not going to the trouble of styling your hair. If Roitfeld can do it, why can’t you?

3. You Can’t Go Wrong in a Breton Striped Shirt

A French woman in a Breton striped shirt is a bit of a stereotype, but with good reason: Nothing looks quite as effortlessly cool. Pair one with a pair of skinny dark washed jeans and a pair of flats for a weekend of errands, or with a print skirt for a more dressed up bohemian look. The classic Breton striped shirt is the Saint James Galathée (price varies at Saint James), but less expensive options abound at places like H&M, Gap, and Zara.

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Photo: Getty Images.

4. Live in a Wear-With-Anything Trench Coat

Parisian women have made the trench coat their BFF. Wear it on the weekends with jeans, over gowns to formal events, layered with a fur stole when the weather gets colder, over your shoulders during the spring—the possibilities are endless. It’s no wonder that French style icons like Brigitte Bardot and Françoise Hardy were rarely photographed out of a trench.

5. It’s All About the Fit

“French women wear clothes that flatter their bodies, regardless of trends,” designer Sophie Theallet told Oprah.com. Step one is buying clothes that fit your body well. Step two is finding a great tailor to make sure that everything in your closet fits to a T—from your everyday black pants to your go-to black tie gown.

6. Think in a Neutral Palette

For the most part, French women dress in a grown-up neutral palette of black, white, beige, and brown, and add pops of color to their look with accessories—say, a red handbag or a brightly patterned scarf. It makes mixing and matching from within your closet pretty effortless, not to mention sticking within this palette makes it hard to make a fashion mistake.

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Photo: Getty Images.

7. Have a Signature Pair of Shoes

Actress Catherine Deneuve wore a single pair of Roger Vivier buckled low-heeled pumps throughout her 1967 classic “Belle de Jour,” which got us thinking—you don’t need a thousand pairs of shoes to look fabulous, you just need one or two really great pairs to get the job done. Karl Lagerfeld muse Inès de la Fressange is carrying on the tradition today, regularly wearing Roger Vivier Gommette patent-leather ballerinas ($550 at MyTheresa.com) with just about everything. In the words of Coco Chanel: “A woman with good shoes is never ugly!” It’’ a sentiment that’s hard to argue with.

8. Investment Shop When Building Your Closet

A big part of why French women get it so right so often is that they tend to investment shop rather than buying into trends. Model and actress Lou Doillon told T magazine: “I have a huge scarf from Hermès that I bought the day I signed my record deal.” Save up for the pieces that you know you’ll have for life—that Hermès scarf, a Chanel bouclé jacket, or a string of Mikimoto pearls, if that’s your style. It might seem like a big investment, but divided over a lifetime of wear, a big-ticket purchase that you love can actually turn out to be a value when compared with an endless string of disposable purchases.

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Photo: Getty Images.

9. Wear a Menswear Inspired Tuxedo for Evening

In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent invented his famous Le Smoking tuxedo suit for women. It is a style that has been in fashion ever since. So do as Parisian girls like Lou Doillon continue to do and swap your gown for a tuxedo for your next evening event. Sexy and sleek, you’ll definitely stand out in a crowd of over-the-top evening-wear.

MORE: A Street Style Guide to Summer Work Style

10. Go from Day to Evening with the Perfect Red Lip

French women have mastered taking their look from day to evening with the red lip. No need to bring a change of clothes to work, lipstick is all it takes to add a little evening glamour to your outfit. Yves Saint Laurent Rouge Pur Couture Lipstick in Rouge Neon ($37 at Yves Saint Laurent) is a shade you can’t go wrong with, but we advise spending some serious time at the makeup counter finding the perfect shade of red—and then stocking up.

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Photo: Getty Images.

11. When in Doubt, Ask Yourself What a Modern Coco Chanel Would Wear

She redefined the way that women dressed in the early 20th century, but the look that Coco Chanel created is just as significant today. No wonder some of the most stylish Parisian women like Clémence Poésy have made jeans and a Chanel jacket their uniform. Other Chanel standards you can’t go wrong in? A little black dress and black-and-white cocktail attire.

12. Dress for Yourself—and Yourself Only

It’s a rule that not only stylish French women, but also pretty much all stylish women have mastered: Great style is about dressing for yourself and yourself only. “You should dress to feel good, not show off,” Inès de la Fressange told The Guardian. “It takes life to learn that.”

A version of this article was originally published in February 2014.

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