What comes to mind when you think of the “typical” French woman style? Maybe it’s a throwback style icon: Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, or Sylvie Vartan. Maybe it’s all the hallmarks we associate with a Gallic look: striped shirt, red lipstick, kitten heels, and a baguette. And if you really want a vision of the French stereotype, it’s Emily in Paris, with berets, sunglasses, and scarves galore. But the truth is, the more you dive into what French women actually want to wear, the more nuanced and complex the answer is.
“I see so much on some websites: ‘The 5 French ways to do this,’ ‘The 5 items that French people wear,’ and I’m always smiling,” says Violette, makeup artist and founder of makeup brand VIOLETTE_FR. “Honestly the only source of realness to me, about French aesthetic fashion at least, is the @parisiensinparis Instagram account [which takes pictures of French women on the street].”
Ever since I lived in the City of Lights over college break, I’ve longed to emulate the true spirit of the country’s effortless approach to fashion (it had such an impact on me that it’s one of my three core style words). To identify what “French style” really means, I spoke to a variety of women who are French or who’ve made the nation their long-term home. While they all embody unique aesthetics, what they all have in common is an insistence on simplicity, a refusal to overthink a look, and a deep, emotional connection to clothing.
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What The Clichés Get Wrong
The first thing to know is that the vision of a slender, straight-haired, white woman strolling the streets of Paris in a floral dress is only a narrow view of what French style is. What we see in movies and via famous Parisian influencers (several experts cited Jeanne Damas, influencer and founder of French brand Rouje, as the most famous example) only represents a small percentage of Parisian women. “I have never seen a French woman wearing a beret!” insists Laurence Delebois, founder and CEO of entrepreneur network Masters of Good.
In truth, you could separate Parisian style from that of the rest of the country, and there’s variety even within the city. Morgane Sezalory, founder of the successful (and American-beloved) French brand Sézane, explains “If you walk the streets of Paris, you will see that there is a strong sense of individualism, an embracing of cultures and a very subtle touch of spirit and eccentricity.”
Dominique Pomelokiwie, blogger and self-proclaimed plus-size fashionista, agrees there are many ways to be a trés chic French woman. “Parisian girls are no longer just one! We are many: different and equally beautiful. We’re Black, white, brown, Asian ... skinny, curvy, plus size and equally stylish,” she says. “People are missing that diversity and, by doing so, they miss the fact that style and personality go together.”
What French Style Really Looks Like
In truth, French women aren’t overthinking or overdressing, no matter the occasion, but instead “manage really well mixing quality basics with a few statement pieces,” says Delebois. For the most part, they know how to put classics together in their own way, and each person uses some aspect of their outfit — accessories, hair, bag, you name it — to express their individuality. And while French style is oft referred to as “effortless,” it does take work. The key? Most women have defined uniforms so they can feel immediately chic and never sloppy.
A few essential items that were called out repeatedly: a pair of walkable shoes, like sneakers, flats, mules, or derbys. An oversized button-up shirt, “kind of like you stole it from your boyfriend,” explains Violette. Classic gold jewelry. Simple, high quality jeans. White t-shirt. Nice gold jewelry. Blazer or trench, depending on the weather. The poster child for this kind of combination used to be actor (and daughter of OG French style icon Jane Birkin) Charlotte Gainsbourg, according to Clémence Polès, consultant and founder of passerby magazine, but in practice the look is laidback and variable. When in doubt, think about what would work well for an office commute on a bike, explains Marine Betrancourt, former Veja communications manager and freelance consultant: “The true French girl: She likes to be free!”
There’s even room for freedom even among the most traditional pieces. Kenza Sadoun el Glaoui, blogger, YouTuber, and TV host, explains that the timeless “French girl” silhouettes you’re probably familiar with, like the striped marinière sweater, espadrille sandal, and Tropeziennes gladiator sandal get “constantly revisited” and given a fresh take.
Within each French woman’s wardrobe there’s space to be adventurous. They’re exploring international fashion trends more and more, according to Géraldine Boublil, founder of the Erin Off Duty blog. And that’s not to say that French women don’t like to dress up when it’s a special occasion. According to Polès: “In Paris, I've been seeing a lot of colors, prints, floral dresses with sneakers, as well as streetwear. Sexier form-fitting revealing colorful pieces seem to be the summer mood this year.”
There’s a deep sense of history in French wardrobes, too. “Sometimes we like to dress [like] old times, when Parisians were so glamorous, with their cigarette holder and hats,” explains Betrancourt. Boublil has a few pieces with sparkles, and platform shoes she loves to wear out since “I am actually keen [on the] ‘70s Studio 54 vibes.” Adds Sezalory, “I have some shoes that I thrifted that are from the 1940s. They’re so exceptional, they are masterpieces but they’re unwearable. I keep them like treasures.”
How To Get Dressed, The French Way
For a lot of French women, wardrobe choices are connected to mood: whether they feel sexy, powerful, bold, beautiful, or even vulnerable that day. The group I spoke with all said that for everyday wear, they don’t think too much about their outfits (of course, it’s helpful that they’ve been surrounded by style and putting together outfits since they were young). French women tend to find quality items and keep them forever; Sadoun el Glaoui literally has items in her closet from when she was a teenager, including an “oversized Ralph Lauren men's shirt that I found in my father's closet when I was 15.”
Delebois insists that she never plans what she’s going to wear, that she needs to dress based on how she feels (and she has her own style words to guide her: simple, strong, chic). She bases her outfit around a single statement piece (like bright pink pants), with streamlined black, white, or denim item to balance it. And Boublil says her outfit must feel just right for the moment: “If not I would change immediately [and] try different combinations.”
According to Delebois, planning ahead and loving closet upkeep lets her go-to pieces stay in rotation. “I air dry and iron everything, even my cotton tee-shirts; this way they last years. I do it at night, it's almost like a mini-meditation,” she explains. “I also spend a lot of money to repair my shoes and clean my bags once a year at the Leather Spa in Manhattan.”
French women often aim for formulas that will work for a busy day followed by a night out, so the pieces need to work for a variety of settings and situations. For blogger and consultant Scheena Donia, “I look for comfort, nothing too tight. I’m also big on versatility, which is probably why my boubou [caftan] collection is getting bigger over the years. I can wear them in the day with a shirt and some sneakers and in the night with gorgeous heels and I’m ready to kill it.”
The Future of French Lady Fashion
Even though it feels like French style is forever classic, and not as dependent on trends and fads, the industry is changing. As the culture slowly embraces the body diversity movement, Pomelokiwie still feels like she’s ahead of the curve: “As a plus size girl, I feel like sometimes people are surprised by my looks because one thing about me is that I’ll wear all those things they say big girls shouldn’t: colors, prints, sneakers, oversize clothes, and even boyish looks while still being feminine.”
Violette, who’s a big proponent of sustainable, slow fashion, is trying to lead by example. “I don’t have that many clothes,” she says. “I’m very lucky to have brands that lend me things. I quite like it that way, so then I don’t consume too much.” However, when she does in invest in something, it’s because she’ll use it time and again. “When I like a piece that they loan me, I buy it and reuse it in my content because I do want people to see that I’m wearing some pieces regularly. I don’t want to push people to buy every season, I want to help them to shop consciously.”
One consistency? A commitment to style, comfort, and self-expression above all else. As Pomelokiwie puts it, “We wear clothes and not the other way around: two people could wear the same outfit but the result would be different because of the attitude and how they wear them — with confidence or not.”