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A guide to French fashion

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

When seen from the outside, French fashion might seem to be intimidating, but there are only a few things that you need to keep in mind about it. Which of these is the most essential component of the French clothing code? Never in your life should you wear shorts, and you should always keep your sweatpants where they belong—at home.

When I was a student at the University of Florida, I became acquainted with a lady who later approached me for some guidance. She had two inquiries for me about the impending vacation she would be taking to France. She had heard via a mutual acquaintance that I resided in France.

She had two questions for us: the first was about what would be an acceptable present for her German guests, and the second was about how she should dress for a few days of touring in Paris.

As things worked out, none of my off-the-cuff recommendations were received very well by her: A lovely bottle of wine from California, perhaps? Out of the question, seeing as how she would never even think of giving alcoholic beverages to someone as a present.

Never mind the fact that her plan, which consisted of a goody box stuffed with chewing gum & chocolate bars (I'm not kidding about this), might be considered a little strange by her adult hosts. Considering that she was only in her early 30s at the time, this made me wonder what kind of "advice" she was looking for; was it the possibility that a different brand of chocolate might be a better option?

But the thing that got her all up was a statement that I made about what constitutes "acceptable" attire. Even though I have never been much of a fashionista, I have picked up on a few things throughout my time spent living in Paris.

What is the dress code in France?

I skipped the background information and went straight to the meat of the matter to make this talk with this lady as productive as possible. In my view, the rule should be as follows: no shorts!

Now, this may sound like obvious advice to my readers who are located in Europe. However, in the United States of America, it is not uncommon to see women going outside while clad just in shorts. Really.

Common sense, as practiced by Floridians, means, wherever it is at all feasible, avoiding the possibility of suffocating to death due to the heat. Because we don't wear trousers that are longer than our ankles in August, we avoid a certain number of fatalities from heatstroke every year.

The person seeking guidance and I were both wearing shorts at the time that sentence was spoken by me. Please no shorts!

It would seem that she interpreted my comments as an attack on the way that she dresses. She took a rather combative stance toward the shorts debate, declaring in a belligerent tone that she was going to wear them regardless of what anybody thought. What did it matter to her what the locals in Paris thought of her? Who was I to tell her what clothes to pack for her trip? I had no business doing that. (Well, yeah, you did ask, remember?)

It wasn't easy for me to persuade her that her American-ness shouldn't necessarily be left behind when she traveled outside the country. Instead, if she dressed like an apparent tourist, it may make her exposed to some illegal acts on the Métro and in the surrounding areas.

For instance, pickpockets may be found almost everywhere in Paris (read about the top scams in Paris). They are excellent, they move quickly, and in no way resemble the people you would anticipate them to be. Believe me when I say that if you give them even the slightest cause to want to get you, they will succeed.

The color black is the new black.

Her inquiries jogged my memory of the growing pains I had after moving to the City of Light. I tried my best in those first several months to 'blend in', to seem 'French,' and - while it makes me feel almost embarrassed to admit it – I avoided other expats (and expatriate organizations!) like the plague. This is something that I've seen many other expatriates do as well.

In terms of my wardrobe, this meant that I deviated from my typical style and started purchasing black items. A significant amount of the color is black. The whole look includes black jeans, black sweaters, a black coat, and black boots. I was much more formidable than Morticia Adams.

The key is simplicity and adaptability.

I now have a better understanding of why individuals in major cities prefer to avoid wearing spectacular bursts of color in their daily clothes. This goes beyond a simple statement of what is considered to be fashionable. Try, for one instance, to fit hundreds of odd separates into an apartment that is the size of a closet but does not have a closet in it. This will give you an idea of how difficult this task may be.

Add to this the fact that many of these flats come furnished with no means whatsoever to connect up laundry facilities, which means that load after load must be carted to the neighborhood laundromat to be cleaned, and you will start to get the picture. When there is no need to sort those cargoes according to hue, everything becomes a great deal simpler (and less expensive), is that not the case?

Consequently, keeping all of this in mind (along with the secret desire to dress like my French mother-in-law, the very essence of chic), I made sure that everything I bought from the point at which I arrived onwards was versatile enough to take me from work to a funeral to an evening out without requiring me to make any additional changes.

The art of accessorizing

To the donation, pile went everything that had even the slightest hint of color, and the money I saved by purchasing fewer items went toward learning the art of 'accessorizing' – even though, in all honesty, I can say that I have yet to learn how to tie my scarves just so – and all of my efforts went toward achieving that 'European Look,' which I have come to reluctantly accept as being impossible to achieve. Or at any other time.

In due time, of course, I came to terms with the fact that I am not a 'black' person. I'm not very good at wearing it, and... this hurts... I suppose I never did.

After receiving a diagnosis of "autumn" a long time ago (women, you all know what I mean), I really ought to have known better. This year, then, it's time to go back to the drawing board – and to the browns and eggplants that I like so very much – as well as to my innately American sense of style (which is so very J. Jill, that's me).

Finding you – without sweatpants

These days, although I still wouldn't be caught dead at the bakery in sweats (or anything else that is suitable only for cleaning house), I do tend to hang out with expatriates just as often as with the French, and I can honestly say that I no longer feel the need to 'compete' with French women. I hang out with expatriates just as often as I do with the French. Instead, I find that I am most at ease when I am just being myself.

And that, my readers, is a huge weight lifted.

Please forgive me, I've got a new pair of socks to show off; now if only I could locate those Birkenstocks. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a new pair of socks to show off.



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