French Clothing: How You Can Achieve French Chic

By Eileen Rowe, International Traveler

French clothing has had a special mystique as the ultimate in feminine chic ever since Marie Antoinette packed up her beehive wigs for a more casual look for her ride to the guillotine.

Colorful Accessories in French Shop. Click on image to go to accessories page.

The reason is simple: The women of France have had a reputation for putting extra effort into the chore of dressing.

Even though neutral colors remain strong, the trend in elegant French street style is to add small accessories of star-burst yellow, glaring orange, and blast-off chartreuse.

Light summer dresses and feather broaches are other on-trend must-haves that can help you achieve French chic.

The ultimate take-away: A French woman takes time to make sure everything is perfect, from her lacy lingerie right up to her earrings.

Light French summer dresses
Summer Dresses in Store Window. Click on photo for more dresses.

Cultivate Soignee

Well-groomed: soignee is a French word that captures the most elegant and intentional attention to the details of grooming.

French clothing and everyday street fashion remains soignee: well-groomed with an eye to the smallest detail, as it always has been.

Somehow the young women of Paris make mid-thigh tutus floating over tights look chic; the French shrug their shoulders over the too-young-to-know-better crowd.

The new has to come from somewhere, and it is often from just such French street fashion.

The tradition of creative, elegant French street style reigns. One year the trendy detail is a splash of throbbing neon; the next it may be a flash of lace.

French clothing used to mean black, noir, midnight, coal, ebony and ink -- for those of us old enough to remember Jean Paul Belmondo and the era of arty French films.

About a decade ago, it brightened to gray, slate, and a shade that resembles a labrador retriever emerging from a mud bath.

Stand Out in Neon

Now chic French women are accenting those classic neutral colors with a bright neon splash that gives an original, fresh look for fashion-conscious women of all ages.

Since French street fashion has always centered around accessories, the vibrant neons are perfect for that Gallic inclination to understate while being drop-dead dramatic.

In the USA, fluorescent clothes have been around since the Eighties. They returned at the Millennium, and now they've blasted into second comeback on the racks at J.C. Penney's and Target and other mass marketers.

5 Tips for How to Wear Neon Colors

Now chic French women are accenting those classic neutral colors with a bright neon splash that gives an original, fresh look for fashion-conscious women of all ages.

The look is subtle and underplayed.

Hats in shop window France
Chic Hats in a Window
In Europe, the trend-setters are using much smaller bits and pieces of the pulsating colors than even a blouse or t-shirt.

Here are some examples of how you can achieve the new French chic:

  • Splashy orange fingernails match a bright orange belt.

  • A sunshine yellow over-the-shoulder handbag picks up the same color as trim on a collar.

  • Day-glow aqua shoes correspond with a pair of earrings the color of a fish tank.

  • A bit of neon trim on a cuff or collar can pick up the same hue on a handbag.

  • Bright scarves are gorgeous ways to pick up a color elsewhere on the ensemble. The secret of pulling it off without looking like you've raided your granddaughter's closet is to keep it subtle. Keep it small.

Feather Your Breast

Other fresh pieces showing up this season in French shops and street markets are light, patterned summer dresses worn loose or slightly belted.

Feather broaches are another hot item; theycan be worn as barrettes or mini-hats. Midsize over-the-shoulder handbags are de rigueur.

Photographers love to portray Paris street fashion: outlandish outfits on very young women and wanna-be trendsetters with headgear the size of beach balls and skin flashing.

But French clothing styles outside the City of Light are well worth observing and a lot more comforting to those of us who haven't been to a disco in decades.

How Small-Town Frenchwomen Score Big On Style

Frenchwoman casually dressed at garage sale
A Scarf Can Make A Difference. Click on photo for women's casual clothing.

In Marseille, Bordeaux, Nice, Orleans, Toulouse, Leon, and in the villages from the German border to Spanish frontier, the women show pride in their appearance.

A casual study of French clothing street style is all it takes to see there is a pride in what impression a woman makes when passing into the visual field of other members of the species.

A case in point: I was enjoying a souffle when applause broke out around the dining room. Assuming a server had entered carrying some grand platter, I looked around for a culinary masterpiece. All I saw was an elderly couple making their exit.

The woman was dressed to the hilt. She wore a stunning hat that matched her necklace and shoes. Everything fit perfectly.

I asked the waiter if she was a celebrity. He shrugged.

"But she's perfect," he grinned. His eyes followed her with admiration.

Attention to Details In Odd Places

In France, women wear earrings most of the time, including while working in the garden or picking up a quart of milk at the market.

Many look as if they've been to the hairdresser, and most have manicured hands.

Sometimes, these touches of French chic show up even where I don't expect them. I was eating at a routier (a French diner, but vive la difference!) when two men and a woman entered.

They looked like people who had lived their lives on the road. The woman's face, red and bloated, showed the signs of hard living. Yet on her earlobes shimmered pearlescent earrings.

That mystery of how older women achieve French chic? It's the impression of having given thought about what they pulled out of their closets that day. They coordinate colors, and when the weather is the least bit cool, a scarf adds a perfect dramatic touch to the ensemble.

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