How to look French (si tu veux!)

By Caitlin Kelly

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Even some shoe soles are stylish! A brand called Freelance

 

The second you arrive in Paris — unless you’re already stylish, small and thin — you can feel like a Stegosaurus among orchids.

It’s a cliche but a true one — French men and women often dress, and design their interiors — with a terrific sense of style, and one I find endlessly interesting and inspiring.

 

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Color

French clothing colors are quite different from those offered in North America, especially in the U.S., where garish primaries and brilliant pinks and turquoises predominate, especially in summer.

A French red is a soft tomato-red, not a cold blue-red, their orange slightly dusty, their yellow a soft mustard. Green is a deep emerald or teal, or a soft, pale mint, maybe even a strong chartreuse. You’ll find many more neutrals — gray, cream, beige — than in the U.S. Also, lots of great browns and rust tones, like the rich russet red of cinnamon and a lovely pale peach, the color of ballet pointe shoes.

On the streets, (where in New York you see a lot of black), you’ll see instead a dozen shades of blue.

I love their combinations, in scarves, shoes, clothing and interior fabrics: mustard/gray; navy blue/soft pink; red/gray; olive/burgundy. Clothing is often displayed by color, making it easier to find what you want, or to match outfits.

Prints

Much less popular, in general. Men and women both wear prints, but usually on a scarf or a very small-scale design shirt or blouse.

Scarves

You might not be a scarf person — but men and women of all ages here wear fantastic scarves year-round, whether of wool, cotton, linen or silk. Most are long and narrow, like a muffler, and add a note of stylish confidence.  Incredible selection everywhere, and at all price points.

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Even grocery carts are chic!

Fit

Since so many American women are large — the average U.S. women’s size being a 14, (maybe a size 6 to 8 in Paris) — almost everything for sale in the States hits below the hip to disguise bulk.

Not in Paris! T’s, jackets and blouses are all cropped shorter. French armholes are also cut higher and closer to the armpit, with narrower sleeves, making for a much cleaner line, but also challenging-impossible for those with larger upper arms. Even a size Large to Extra Large can be a lot smaller than you need.

Tall men with broad shoulders may find French clothing less accommodating as well.

I have seen larger sizes for women, but at high price points — usually $200-400 for a stylish blouse or dress, found in a few indie boutiques.

Fit matters here. You won’t see baggy-assed trousers or pleated khakis on men or women, nor pants that need shortening. Attention to detail is a key element of how Frenchmen and women present themselves in public.

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Shoes

Available in every conceivable color and material — from black raffia to pale pink iridescent patent leather to metallic green kidskin with a parrot on top. A jazz shoe — soft-soled, laced — is a perennial favorite, in all colors and finishes, as are loafers. You won’t see many high heels, impractical on cobbled streets.

No matter how simple her outfit, a stylish French woman chooses an interesting shoe.

There are lots of great choices for men, with a flat-soled leather or or suede boot a popular option. The Marais, long a gay neighborhood, offers fantastic options for men, and BHV Homme is an entire department store just for men.

Bags

So many bags! While some tourists drop thousands on a Big Name Designer bag like Chanel or Hermes, there are many other stylish and less-expensive options, whether  a classic French maker like Lancel, Le Tanneur or Longchamps to something more fun and funky.

Hair

A great cut and lively color are de rigueur.

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Galeries Lafayette

Interiors

I lovelovelove shopping for our home here; on this trip I bought everything from napkins to bathmats to a throw for the bed, even a comforter.

I find the colors and textures so alluring, with bed linens — sometimes made of linen — offered in every color of the rainbow. If you love beautiful objects and home goods, set aside time to browse department stores BHV and (higher-end) Le Bon Marché.

Small, light packable items like salt and pepper grinders, aprons, napkins and small trays make gorgeous gifts and souvenirs.

Both of these stores have excellent cafés and if you spend more than 175 euros in one day, be sure to claim your détaxe — the 12% value-added-tax — at the store’s designated desk. You must take your passport.

For those with the budget and enough time, ($150/meter and up), you can also visit the showrooms of the Rue du Mail (as I did), a street lined with high-end interior fabric for sale, like Pierre Frey, and order some for your home. They need at least three or four days’ notice, (not including a weekend) and it allows you to bypass the annoying American gatekeeper system, where you can only buy such fabrics through a designer.

 

Some of my favorite Paris shops:

 

Irena Gregori

Every time I visit Paris, I stop in, and am still wearing and loving several garments I bought there many years ago — and I’m a size 12 to 14, so you don’t have to be tiny.  Great selection of shoes, scarves, dresses and blouses. In June, sales start and her lovely winter coats were half-off for about $200.

BHV

It’s huge! A terrific cafe sits on the top floor, offering splendid views of the surrounding area. You’ll find clothing, shoes, home goods, luggage, make-up and perfume. Check out their throw pillows and comforters; (you can always mail them home.) Their stationery and crafts section is amazing — with lots of very good art supplies.

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Le Bon Marché

Le Bon Marché

This high-end department store, founded in 1838 in a quiet, mostly residential neighborhood, offers a very beautiful physical space to shop in — spacious and full of natural light. Lovely tea room and an amazing food hall!

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Affordable and pretty lingerie, sleepwear and bathing suits.

Galeries Lafayette

Huge, bustling department store, in a circular design, beneath a spectacular stained glass roof.

Calligrane

On the Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, one of three very good paper stores all beside one another. Paper for writing letters, framing, lampshades or wrapping; also notebooks and gorgeous cardboard folders.

Diwali

This chain of stores is a must if you like scarves as much as I do, in silk, cotton and wool. Their crinkled one-color scarves are well-priced at about $20, and adding one or several to your outfit, men and women, adds a pop of Parisian panache.

 

 

34 thoughts on “How to look French (si tu veux!)

  1. …if I may add my bit of French salt!!! I figured one day that all this matching in colors and everything else comes from French grammar 🙂 Don’t laugh… In our language we have to match everything all the time, the adjective to the noun whether it’s feminine or masculine or plural, verbs ending for the plus-perfect, and so on. I have a memory to illustrate this. When my father bought a blue citroen car one day my mother felt the need to buy a blue umbrella… no kidding!

      1. Sorry for the flippancy.
        Better translation: No doubt about it!
        Do tell re Berlin? Never been there (yet) looking for a good excuse to go…. Merci,
        ellen

    1. I’ve lost some weight (thanks to a year of 5:2 fasting and consistent exercise) but I still felt like a total heffalump. 🙂

      That’s OK — I love the accessories I got in Paris, and Belin (yay!) has sizes large enough to fit me. Now to find some styles I like as much as the French ones. Quite different.

      1. I am laughing because you mentioned buying home goods in France. When I am feeling too heavy, I buy jewelry and shoes :-). Needless to say, I have a lot of jewelry and shoes.

      2. Hmmm. Me, too. 🙂 I buy homegoods everywhere I find things I won’t see at home. People assume NYC has everything. No, it doesn’t. Nor do Americans make all the things I like.

  2. i love your descriptions, colorful (tastefully), and with some much attention to detail. i especially love the soles of the shoes you featured in the first photo and i am always drawn to paper and scarves, so it all sounds wonderful.

    1. It is! 🙂

      You, I know, are a deep lover of things that are beautiful, and Paris is so filled with visual beauty in every form, from 17th century carved wooden doors to exquisite fabrics to the light. I come home each time from there — grateful!!! — and with so many photos (which we print and hang) and memories. It replenishies my well.

  3. I wonder if there isn’t a bit of ‘grass is greener’ in your Paris experience? I find everything is better shopping-wise when I travel, especially when I go back to North America. For example, sheets and towels. Percale is hard to find in France and NEVER comes out of the machine as wrinkle free as sheets I bought in Canada. Super thirsty towels are also hard to find here. But you make a very good point about what is available at the upper end. When you have the money, you can find everything in France. I think the very high and the lower ends are both excellent; what is less so is the middle, which is perhaps better served in Canada. As for shoes, one of my favourite brands is Arche. Super comfortable but great style and colours. Enjoy Paris and profites-en!

    1. Thanks.

      Yes, quite probably…But it’s more the colors and their combinations I miss. I really dislike most of the clothing and shoes I see on offer in the U.S. — even in “it has everything” NYC. Not really. It’s virtually impossible to find clothes in neutrals and especially navy blue. So sick of black!! I love cream and brown and blue, not just gray and black.

      Lower-to-middle income Americans are also accustomed to truly shoddy quality and replacing everything all the time — I grew up in Canada and am accustomed to using a cobbler to maintain quality footwear for a long time. I recently spent the most $$$$ of my entire life on a dress (Bergdorf Goodman, Jason Wu), and feel I did get something worth it, but I shouldn’t have to blow that kind of dough to get there!

      I know Arche. I like them on other people, but not on me. 🙂

      Now in Berlin, and enjoying how differently people dress here. Also, clothing in my size!

  4. As a french woman, I would add, that in Paris, though, if you like, you can go out with your hair wet, and dressed in a bag, and nobody will give you a look. You’ll feel miserable, BUT accepted. While, in Province, the rage to fit and be well dressed is pushed much further, reaching sometimes ridicule, and sometimes daring styles. Most women in my town get their hair done once a month and the commonest type of shop is a hairdresser–and you have to take appointments. In Paris, there is a more careless refinement, more natural and less perfectionnist, which contributes in itself to the style.

    1. Thanks for the clarification! I agree…it’s the same in NYC. You can go out looking like hell, but if you do it with supreme confidence, c’a y est! 🙂

      In NYC you can tell immediately who’s come in from upstate or out of state — hair, clothes, etc. Not cost, style.

      1. I am no fan of cheap clothing. It’s junk that falls apart and just has to be replaced over and over and over — so you end up spending the same $$$$$, but boosting their sales every time.

  5. You talk colours like my sister. When she asked me what the colors were on my condo, I said “white”. She asked what kind of white and listed at least 10 types of white.

    I think my cargo shorts will look out of place in France.

    1. I got an A in my (very difficult) color class at NYSID where we learned to mix every color from scratch. It forever changed my understanding of, and appreciation for it. Ask your sister about metamerism! 🙂

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