French Dressing

“The French order these things better”, Lawrence Sterne – the author of Tristram Shandy – observed many years ago, and that still holds true when it comes to clothes.

The French are still dressing better than the Brits – you only have to stroll down a Parisian street, or sit people watching at a café to work that out. And they make it look so effortless,  having mastered a minimalist, understated style with a touch of flamboyance when it comes to eclectic accessorising.

The secret of dressing like the French is no mystery – there are some fairly basic rules to follow. You’ll want some basics in your wardrobe, and invest in quality ones, nothing cheap and nasty – cotton T-shirts, jeans, a linen shirt and a cashmere top will do you fine.

You’ll need a pair – or two – of quality  leather shoes,  either  in black or brown. These will look great on all occasions, whether informal with a pair of jeans, or more formally with tailored trousers.

Trousers, as with all garments, should be slim fit, baggy being a vulgar American look. Slim fit here means slim, not skinny – clothes should fit you like a glove, and not be squeezed into. Your new best friend is a tailor, perfect for alterations, whether of vintage or new clothing.

Layering is another key to the French look; the way a shirt peeks out from underneath a sweater, just visible under that long coat (under, of course, a scarf during Autumn and Winter). Layering works through balancing textures and your colour palette; different shades of grey, blues, blacks and navy – there is a difference –  are for playing with. This makes a splash of red on a sweater or scarf stand out all the more dramatically. Obviously, garish colours and logos are out.

An all-black outfit is a very popular one which will accentuate a splash of colour from a scarf or handkerchief, and can easily flit from formally casual, with a black tailored jacket, to rock star chic with a black bomber jacket. You can slip a blue in here too, if you want to subtly mix it up.

When we think of the French, the first thing we might think of is a classic Breton T-shirt, and why not? They’re absolutely timeless classics, and look great peeking out from under a cardigan, which is why many French men still have them in their wardrobes, if not berets.

In the end, dressing like a Frenchman isn’t really all that difficult – just think less is more, and emphasise quality over quantity. You can find fashion  inspiration here.

How To Dress Like a Frenchwoman

How do the French do it? How do they manage to look effortlessly chic with the minimum of effort, maintaining the appearance of having thrown together an outfit at the last minute, because they were too busy discussing philosophy at the local café to think about something so mundane as clothes?

The secret to successful French dressing isn’t that complicated – it actually boils down to keeping things simple, understated, and having a few high quality pieces in your wardrobe.

French women tend only to wear sportswear in the gym, although trainers, and especially Converse, are making an appearance on French feet. Heels are as understated as the rest of the outfit, and stilettoes are out – no tottering about on unfeasibly unstable footwear for the French, thanks.

Frenchwomen manage to look effortlessly feminine, and one of the ways they do it is by wearing traditionally masculine clothes, and giving them a twist. The trench coat is a classic look, one that is perfect for formal occasions or draped over a pair of jeans. Women have been wearing men’s tuxedo jackets since Yves Saint Laurent launched ‘le smoking’ back in the 60s. Similarly, a pair of skinny Levis coupled with a Breton shirt is a perfect rock chic(k) look for the weekend.

Understatement is often key – no loud colours and large, flashy logos – that’s for the Italians. Colours are black, white, grey, beige, perhaps a splash of a primary colour such as a red handbag, for effect. When you’re working with a neutral palette, it’s easier not to clash.

Hair is another essential – it shouldn’t be excessively coiffed, but have a slightly tousled, ‘I recently got out of bed and don’t care’ look – similarly, eyeshadow should be understated, and slightly smudged for maximum effect.

The fit is all – French women, never, ever, pour themselves into something a size too small in the hope that it’ll make it them look slimmer. They know that always has the opposite effect. Instead, dress slightly looser, working layers against each other, and get on good terms with a tailor, who’s a girl’s best friend in contouring clothes for your body.

French women don’t try to follow fashion – instead they want to look as if they inspire fashion. Choose a signature style that suits your look and your lifestyle, and go for it.

Ultimately, dressing like the French is about having confidence in your own style, not caring (or appearing to care) about what other people think, and rocking your own individual look. You should try it – it’ll make you look great, and feel great.

Chanel Style

The French are synonymous with style worldwide, When we think French style however, what we’re probably thinking of can ultimately be laid at the feet of one designer – Coco Chanel. She revolutionised women’s fashion in the 20th century, more so than any other designer. While fashionistas might drape themselves in clothes bearing her label, we’re all wearing Chanel-inspired designs, whether we’re slipping on a little black dress or sporting a Breton shirt.

It’s hard to imagine what women’s fashion was like before Chanel – elaborate, burdensome, and restrictive to women’s freedom. Following her own dictum, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off”, she would free women from the bondage of corsets, even daring to shorten skirts so that ankles could be seen!

The little black dress would be perhaps Chanel’s most iconic contribution to fashion history. Previously a colour associated with mourning, Chanel would liberate black so that woman could wear it for its aesthetic qualities, to look like they meant business, rather than being weeping widows. While her revolutionary designs were elegant, they were also comfortable and practical, leading to their widespread success – indeed, the LBD would come to be known as the ‘Ford’ of women’s clothing.

Another radical move made by Chanel was to incorporate men’s tailoring into women’s outfits. In the 1920s, she borrowed a tweed suit from her partner at the time, the Duke of Westminster. She loved it so much she started producing tweeds for women, setting up a long-standing relationship with Linton tweeds in Carlisle, and a style still going strong today.

Perhaps her most scandalous move was to dare to put women in…trousers! While women had worn trousers for work purposes during World War 1, a lady would never be seen dead in them, until Chanel repurposed them for the female form, liberating women to play with traditionally masculine silhouettes.

She would also be the first designer to understand the power of branding, creating in 1921  her first perfume – Chanel No 5. This was the first fragrance ever to bear the name of a designer, associated with the number five because a fortune teller had told Chanel that this was her lucky number.

It’s easy to see how we’re wearing clothes that have been shaped by Chanel, even if they don’t bear her label. It really is Coco Chanel’s world we’re living in now. As the grande dame herself said, “Fashion fades, only style remains the same”.


Breton Stripe

It is said that one evening in Deauville, in 1917, fashion designer Coco Chanel was out walking on the beach with her lover and backer, Arthur “Le Boy” Capel, when she had one of her greatest moments of inspiration. Borrowing his jersey sweater to shield herself from the evening chill, she realised that, with a few snips of her cutter’s scissors, it could be transformed into a chic, simple woman’s top. And so the Breton shirt as we know it was born.

The Breton stripe originates from Brittany (‘Bretagne’ in French) on the North West coast of France.  The navy and white knitted shirt was made the uniform of the French navy.  As their prescribed uniform, the style of the top was crafted for practicality – the length should cover the lower back of the seafarer, and the top was not too loose, so as not to get caught on anything during work.

The distinctive striped pattern made them unmistakable to spot on the waves in emergencies. However, the striped pattern is so closely linked with Brittany that their flag, designed in 1923, also contains the Breton stripe pattern, although in black and white rather than navy blue and white.  The nine horizontal stripes represent the traditional Brittany dioceses; on the shirts, they’re said to represent the number of Napoleon’s victories over the British.

The style would spread in the 1920s and 30s, as seaside destination holidays like St Tropez were becoming popular, and a more casual style was ideal. This look was spearheaded by Chanel, who brought a new freedom to women;s fashion by breaking away from the more heavily fitted styles.  Post war, the Breton shirt would become associated with the Boho scene around St Germain des Pres, Juliette Greco and the Existentialists. Wearing one made you look sexy and intellectual – an irresistible combo. Meanwhile, in the South of France, Picasso was never photographed without one. The Breton stripe was also gaining international legs and conquering the States, with such high-profile devotees as James Dean (in Rebel Without a Cause) and Audrey Hepburn.

It’s impossible to think of the 60s and not think of the Breton shirt – especially around Andy Warhol and the Factory scene. Both Warhol and the house band, The Velvet Underground, would sport the stripe, though it’s Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick who would most rock the look and be forever associated with the shirt.

Today, no one has done more to popularise the Breton shirt than Jean Paul Gaultier. While the designer himself is iconic in his trademark Breton striped top and kilt, Gaultier even insists that his press team wear stripes during their runway shows. In 2010 he even redesigned the former apartment of famed French architect Jacque Carlu to feature signature nautical stripes all over his apartment.

From its humble beginnings as a sailor’s top, the Breton shirt has grown to be synonymous with nonchalant French style- a true style classic, that will always grant you cred de la rue.

How Paris Became Fashion Capital of the World

Paris is universally recognised as the style capital of the world, and Parisians renowned for their apparently innate ability to be effortlessly stylish. However, this is all the result of many years of fashion history accumulated in the French capital.

Stylistically innovative and technically flawless, such French brands as Hermes, Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent have become synonymous with French chic. However, the French arguably owe their original chic to King Louis XIV, the spectacular ‘Sun King’ whose lavish lifestyle ranged from his extravagant palaces to his luxurious wardrobe. Realising the importance of luxury goods for the national economy, Louis brought creative industries, including the textile trade, under the control of the court, who would become the official arbiter of style.

Haute couture (bespoke clothing for a specific client) wouldn’t explode until the following century, when Paris would be its centre, and French designs were copied worldwide. Of the many fashion houses that sprang up, the most famous would be Chanel, who completely liberated women’s fashion in ways that are still being felt today.

If World War II and Nazi occupation would bring things to a halt, and even close down Chanel’s business, the world of strict rationing and textile shortages that followed wouldn’t help.  Until Christian Dior, that is, who would revolutionise fashion with his ‘new look’, stressing a tucked-in waist and an A-line skirt falling to mid-calf, promoting an elegant, feminine silhouette. Dior claimed that ‘Europe has had enough of bombs, now it wants to see fireworks’ – and he was right. French fashion was flourishing again in the hands of Hubert de Givenchy and Pierre Balmain.

In the 1960s, French fashion would face another serious challenge – youth culture. This was being imported from the UK and US, and the leather jackets and miniskirts were taking off amongst French youth, who couldn’t afford the sophisticated, fabulously expensive creations of the top designers.

Enter another French visionary –  Yves Saint Laurent. Saint Laurent would famously  transition classic male designs – such as ‘le smoking’ – into the female wardrobe. His most important innovation was to become the first couture house to produce a Prêt-à-Porter, or ready-to-wear, collection. Suddenly, he had democratised the elitist fashion industry, and made it much more accessible. Today, almost all of the old couture houses market ready-to-wear lines, which gain more media coverage and therefore more positive publicity for the companies, and, in fact, make more money, since mere mortals can actually afford to purchase them.

You just can’t stop Parisian fashion, whether it’s through war, occupation or external threats. If there were to be a nuclear holocaust or a natural catastrophe, Parisians would still be seen cruising the boulevards in perfectly layered and tailored clothes – we should all take something from their style.