Dressing like a French woman — and shopping less

By Caitlin Kelly

Clothing in history
Clothing in history (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the air gets chilly here in New York — and much of the Northern Hemisphere — we’re pulling out our sweaters and scarves, putting on wool and leather (or not, if you’re vegan.)

For some of us, that also means pulling out the same garments, shoes and accessories we’ve been wearing for years, maybe even a decade or more.

I loved this recent piece in The Guardian, by British designer Margaret Howell:

I think for someone to make something that’s going to last, there is undoubtedly an amount of love as well as skill that goes into that. And things that last are important. I’m happy to pay more for something if I see it as an investment. I would rather spend £80 on a saucepan if it means that I’ll be buying one that lasts. I’ve always felt that about things, rather than thinking something is too expensive. I’ve noticed that the French think like that about clothes – they’ll have fewer but better quality.

I agree with her.

I’m grateful for having grown up in Canada, a country whose consumer market was small enough that going shopping meant limited choice, (no Internet then). Canadians generally earn lower salaries and pay higher taxes than in the U.S., (where I now live,) so the whole notion of shopping-as-recreation never made much sense to me.

I also spent a year living in Paris when I was 25. That, and many visits back since then, also shaped how I view the buying/keeping/mending of my wardrobe.

I love beautiful things, (and have expensive taste), which de facto limits how much I can acquire. Keeping good things longer also lowers the CPW, (cost-per-wearing), a wiser use of limited funds. The CPW calculation essentially amortizes the cost of acquisition as the more you wear/use something, the less it costs you in the long run — if you buy a $30 pair of shoes that last six months, and have to go buy another pair — you’ve spent $60.

I’d rather find a $200 pair on sale for $120 and get many more seasons from them instead. I have limited time, energy and patience for shopping as well.

(Which is also why blowing $$$$$$$$$ on a white satin wedding gown you’ll wear only once is a crazy use of hard-earned coin.)

Like Howell, I’d much rather have one or two thick cashmere sweaters, (found in thrift or consignment shops for a fraction of their original prices), than a dozen cheaper ones that will probably shrink, pill or date.

Here’s one of my go-to high-end finds, found in a consignment shop, still cosy and warm after…five? years.


Like Howell, like French women, I prefer to buy fewer things and keep them in good shape for years.

— It saves money

— It saves time

— It helps the environment

— It’s a good practice to consistently care for your things — polishing your shoes and boots; using shoe trees to keep their shape; making sure your footwear has new heels and lifts so you don’t wear them out; mending your clothes; tailoring things to fit you properly. The idea of simply throwing something away because it needs a little work? Bizarre and wasteful.

— If you can make/mend your own items, even better!

— Doing so also employs skilled experts, like tailors and shoe repair shops

— It re-focuses our attention away from the hamster wheel of get-spend-get-spend-getmorenow!

— It reminds us to focus on what we have, and to savor it, not simply to greedily rush to the next acquisition

— Wearing vintage, thrift or consignment shop clothing is a smart and frugal way to recycle

— Vintage clothes are often better-made of finer materials like silk, cashmere or wool

— We tend to care more for things we plan to keep for many years, so shoe trees/polish/suede brush and a good sewing kit, lint roller and steamer, good-quality hangers and storage options all matter

I admit, I’m also enjoying a few new purchases as well: a thick new Patagonia fleece (half-price), a long black four-season dress and two cotton midi-skirts.

Of course, the stylish Cadence, author of Small Dog Syndrome blog — recently relocated to London — just posted about an amazing vintage shop she discovered there:

One of best aspects of quality vintage clothing is how well some of it holds up. I peered through riding boots that are decades old but look and feel more solid and better than half of what I could find new at a store for the same price.

If you haven’t read this book, it’s worth considering what an addiction to trendy/cheap/fast fashion really costs.

Here are her 10 simple tips to shop more frugally and mindfully.

And here’s a fun book I own on Paris street style.

Men Shopping for Clothing Accessories
Men Shopping for Clothing Accessories (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Are you a big shopper?

What’s the oldest item you’re still wearing and enjoying?

30 thoughts on “Dressing like a French woman — and shopping less

  1. I hate shopping, so your approach makes sense to me. I try to buy things that will last so I don’t have to do it again too soon. The thing I haven’t figured out is shoes. I wear them out so fast, and there seems to be an inverse relationship between cost and comfort (in other words, the greater the cost, the lower the comfort), but cheap shoes seem to be designed for comfort but not repair. A conundrum, I tell you.

    1. Hmmmm. Some people are harder on their shoes than others…have you tried any decent consignment or thrift shops? You can score some really good quality there that may well last longer that are worth repairing.

      I usually live in ballet flats and loafers. I pull out my (one pair of) heeled Manolos for business events. 🙂

  2. Hi Caitlin – My late mother-in-law loved clothes and good quality ones – unfortunately the cashmere sweaters were too small and tight. However, I do shop a great consignment shop in Tucson regularly and have picked up some excellent silver jewelry there. I can think of two things that are OLD that I can’t give up and still wear: an L.L. Bean tweed blazer that still looks great and which I bought in a consignment shop and two pairs of Kenneth Clark boots which I regularly treat with leather conditioner. Today I wore a plaid linen shirt (Guess) with my jeans ) and it is about 15 years old. I do like good quality clothes and so much in the stores these days is really cheap in construction and material. I do like to shop, especially for good shoes, but regularly pare down my closet and donate.

  3. Love this! Right now, I’m wearing my 15 year old Cole Haan (faux) alligator skin loafers, which are back in style since menswear is hot this fall. I got them half price and have had them resoled once or twice; at this rate they’ll probably last another 15 years, so even though they weren’t cheap the CPW is probably pennies. That said, I love clothes and love getting new things, but don’t necessarily love shopping, especially since I still shop for two of my three kids. In the past few years, I’ve taken to stocking up in fall and spring when I clean out my closet. I used to shop when we had special events to go to, then I discovered all the great vintage cocktail stuff you can find at consignment shops. Now, when we have special functions, I either shop there or shop my closet. My current favorites are a two-piece St. Johns knit suit I inherited from my mother-in-law, and a mustard leather clutch from the 50s or 60s that belonged to my grandmother.

    1. Why am I not surprised at your savvy style? I love that you are so frugal and still look so great.

      I also tend to shop a few times a year — blowing some $$$ but buying versatile, three or four-season items — so I’ve always got the right clothes. Sometimes I’ve had mere hours to suddenly go and do a BBC TV spot or attend an event, and it’s a great relief to have a few good things ready to go.

  4. Yes – this is very good practise and well worth the effort.

    Have to disagree with you that Canadians earn less on average than Americans, however. It’s more likely that Americans earn less but also pay less tax, while Canadians earn more but pay more tax. I have lived and worked in both countries and in my experience have found this to be true.

  5. I read a post a couple of days ago which echoes Howell’s thoughts: “I would rather spend £80 on a saucepan if it means that I’ll be buying one that lasts”.

    Hear hear! Like you, I have expensive tastes and I like to dress well. But on a student budget it means that I buy a few pieces every season and make sure they will last, for example, last month I bought a Barbour jacket. It cost me £250 (approx $405) but it will last for years and it is wonderfully warm. I hardly ever take it off!

    Thanks for the link to the book on Paris street style. It’s a coincidence: just the other day I was thinking that I wanted to look up a book on French style. I’ll check it out later…must dash now as I am in a hurry!

  6. I got rid of so many clothes before we moved to London (my little sister profited to a degree that my mother didn’t have to do ANY back to school shopping for her). I thought I’d pared down my wardrobe after I’d first tried to make it more streamlined and frugal – after reading Overdressed, as it happens – but this was something else entirely. I thought I’d miss or need at least a couple of the things I gave away once I got here…I haven’t in the slightest!

    Thanks for the link, and that Paris Street Style book looks amazing. I’ll have to see if I can find it.

  7. I’m with you. Expensive taste. Love clothing. But my environment doesn’t take well to it (dusty, outside, Vermont….) so I’m consistently putting holes in expensive jeans and nice shirts. I know in NYC, Vintage shops are easy to come by, and designer clothes at a discount are more readily available. Where I live, consignment shops are filled with completely style-void options, probably well made, because they come from older well-to-do ladies, but who are bigger size and shorter than me and definitely a different style. I stopped going; it’s not worth it here. I end up shopping when I do travel…whenever I can find an Anthropologie I splurge (usually around Thanksgiving), or a Nordstrom, or specialty shops, and that takes me until the following year where I do it again. It’s too difficult to keep replacing clothing; I buy to last! Your post did remind me I have a pair of Frye boots that need to be taken in soon…..I keep wearing them as they fall apart because I can’t imagine being without there for how long it takes to fix them!

    1. I hear you! I lived for 18 months in New Hampshire (Lebanon) and there was no Internet then for online shopping and we were broke and it was a 2-hour drive to Boston…Not fun. It’s true that where you live will very much affect what’s on offer locally — size and styles. I drive to Greenwich, CT where wealthy women (and some are my size) drop off never-worn stuff, some of very stylish.

      Love Anthro! (on sale.)

    1. Thanks!

      When we’re younger, trendy might seem more compelling. But I want beautiful things I can enjoy for a while. I have the “basics” and now seek out unusual and special things, often great accessories like shoes, scarves or jewelry.

  8. I loved reading this. One of my current-older faves is a black cashmere cardigan purchased on sale at Nordstrom a good eight years ago. But it’s still going strong.

  9. the older i have gotten, the more i understand and agree with this. my favorite piece is actually an accessory. a large, soft leather tan bag, reminds me of a well-worn saddle. italian, well-made and timeless. carries every and anything and is a security blanket for me as well. i plan to be cremated with it )

    1. How sensible…then no one else can ever be so stylish! 🙂

      One of my fave, go-to accessories is a crinkled silk scarf that is so wide it doubles as a sash, muffler or shawl — I bought four of them, a million years ago at Banana Republic, and wear them all the time: rose pink, fuchsia, deep brown and pale creamy white.

  10. I’m all for buying an expensive scarf to liven up my one black wool skirt and my cashmere sweater. I have some 15 year old sweaters I wear. My most prized possession, although not fashionable, my Cowichan sweater. I bought it over 20 years ago and it is still beautiful, warm, cozy.

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