I've always envied women who have a uniform. Not like an actual uniform, although it does sound nice to know exactly what you're going to wear every day, especially at 6:30 in the morning when I am bleary-eyed, contemplating which sweatpants I can get away with for the morning school run without triggering looks of concern from my children's teachers.
By uniform, I mean the word in the sense fashion has co-opted it to mean: a look that is uniquely that woman's own look and that she can conjure into existence easily, quickly, and mysteriously with the same blouse or jeans that might look boring on me and instead look simple and sophisticated on her. In a word: effortless style, which every woman knows is an illusion, but an illusion I've longed to learn the trick of, the way I used to practice flipping coins around my fingers for hours when I was a child. I never did learn how to conjure coins from children's ears.. and have more or less lost the ambition to do so, to be honest. But here are a few tricks I have picked up from living in and around New York and Paris or at least Parisians like my older sister, some of my friends, and a bunch of my children's teachers* for most of my adult life.
*A proviso: Keep in mind, these days Parisian style is more a state of mind than a geographical requirement! I'm French-American, a dual citizen, so my kids go to a bilingual school in Philadelphia, and I really need to start the French language learning portion of this blog sooner than later... Anyway, I've geared this post towards a French take on capsule wardrobes, because I find myself most inspired by that aesthetic, but you could recreate this capsule wardrobe (and if you do, please tag me!) as a Portland girl or New York girl (or woman or boy!) or any of the aesthetics that match either the region you're from or the region that most resonates with you. Also, you might be surprised how many of the pieces below you already possess in your closet and how it really only does take a tweak here or there to make those basics WERK!
1. Striped Top
I had to start this list with off with ze famous striped top (and get really in-depth with it), because, in my experience, that's what springs to mind when anyone hears "French girl style". I'm not sure how the striped top became ubiquitous with French style, and I feel like a study in that subject could become an essay of its own! I do know, when I was acting in New York, a casting agent literally cast me as Miss France in a music video for that HBO show Flight of the Conchords, only because I was French and then... my language speaking skills ended up having nothing to do with the part.
I still reckon it had more to do with the fact I'd also said I owned a striped top.
Luckily, I thought it was funny when they asked me to show up on set with said striped top, as well as capri pants and a beret. (All of which, I'd owned but had never put together in one look, because...urgh.) When they handed me a baguette to carry around on stage, I wondered if I ought to be offended. I 100% knew for a fact MANY of my French relatives would have been offended by the reductive stereotype, but then Jemaine Clement and Brett McKenzie turned up on set, which was in this huge, abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn near, or maybe even part of, the Navy Shipyards. The two stars had a zany, infectious energy. I sighed, deciding to just have fun with it.
After the video shot, me and a bunch of the other "ladies of the world" walked back to the subway together, talking, laughing, more than a little frightened by the odd, abandoned corner of New York City we'd spent the morning working in. Still, it ended up being a great memory.
That said, I would urge caution when wielding the striped top! You don't want to look like a reductive French cliché, even if so many of us do want to look like a Parisian girl. Go for fit and experiment with the stripes and colors that look best on you. I love this striped top by Ronny Kobo that I'm wearing above, and that I found secondhand on eBay. The bell sleeves make it special and the cropped top goes great with high-waisted jeans. (Another staple of the French girl capsule wardrobe. See Tip #3!) Also here's the video. Feel free to laugh at my ridiculous costume if you can spot me!
2. Neutral Heels
Okay, if you're still reading, I LOVE YOU and because I love you, I will try to keep the rest of this list succinct. I did have to reference the time I LITERALLY WORE A FRENCH GIRL UNIFORM when writing a French girl capsule wardrobe post, after all, right???
Anyway, back to the list: so, I found these pre-owned cap-toed Chanel heels from 2016 on Tradesy in brand-new condition last year! There are now a bunch of similar versions available from Sam Edelman and others at ShopBop. I linked to them on the Like To Know It app. You can follow me there to shop both my new and thrifted and vintage picks! Also, really any sort of neutral heel will work at making a jeans and tee outfit look a little more polished. Look for a neutral color that matches your skin tone. It will help to elongate your legs! (Also, a neutral, round-toed heel goes with everything.) Something else to look for: I have become a huge fan of two inch heels. Yes, maybe it's because I'm a busy mom, but I also love clothes, as in this capsule wardrobe post, that can be worn in multiple ways. And I find two-inch heels go easily from day to night!
)3. High-waisted light denim
As I mentioned above, this style goes great with cropped tops. It also makes easier to tuck in a sweater. Another way to tweak your outfit French. Or half-tuck that sweater for a sophisticated but relaxed-looknig "French tuck" as Tan, one of the Queer Eye guys has even dubbed that tweak.
As for high-waisted denim, you can find loads of them in vintage shops. I also love these sustainably made Agolde jeans I bought new at Revolve, because they're made of recycled materials and the 90s fit is just right. FYI I also love Levi's, one of the few huge brands making a sustainable initiatives. There is also not only something French, but something '90s timeless about high-waisted jeans. I was recently re-watching Friends and this lightwash look is the one most favored by Monica's character! In fact, I loved ALL of the Friends' outfits all of a sudden. The '90s are unequivocally seeing a comeback. Most of all, though, I noticed the built-to-last quality of the "Friends'" clothes. I don't know if this recent pushback against fast fashion is part of that 90s come-back, but the clothes Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe wear in the show looked less trendy, sturdier, and more wearable-- aka modern! I hope the trend continues! Check this piece out in The Washington Post about the recent "tipping point" in fast fashion. Also, Elizabeth Cline, who I recently interviewed here is quoted in the piece!
4. A black leather jacket
Okay, phew, I promised to stick to the point, but, you guys, fashion and its history and vintage stuff and costumes might be my favorite thing to chat about. (I love books and movies, too. I have an upcoming post about some picks for fall good reads and fireside watches.) I admit I get a little over-enthused. I'll let the rest of the pieces speak for themselves, except to say I found this Maje jacket new with tags on eBay!!! AND the seller has several more new and pre-owned versions in his eBay shop, including a few by Sandro and others. Follow me on the Like To Know It app to see the others! A classic leather jacket is unquestionably an item you can easily score secondhand, while upping the quality of the garment, no matter your budget. For example, my pre-owned jacket cost a fifth of the price of a new Maje jacket by buying it secondhand, even with having to pay $30 to ship it from Russia!
5. A black tailored skirt & 6. Cat-eyed sunglasses or classic black sunglasses
I'm endlessly thrifting beautiful, tailored black skirts and experimenting with which length looks best on me. I like just above the knee or right on the knee. I purchased a short Reformation skirt this summer, and I felt so uncomfortable. Being sexy and chic isn't about showing a lot of skin. It's about being comfortable in said skin. (Urgh, you know what I mean, I hope.) Cat-eyed sunglasses also come in different shapes btw, so don't write the style off because one pair, once at a fair or a vintage shop didn't suit you! Even if you really think they don't suit you, you might want to try experimenting with thinner or thicker frames. I have a rounder pair that don't suit me as well as these YSL sunnies above. They're Nina Ricci, and I ought to find them a more loving home in my Poshmark closet... https://poshmark.com/closet/isabelladavid.
7. White button-down tailored shirt & 8. A Nice Black or Brown Belt
I would argue that item #7 is maybe the most important one in your French girl capsule wardrobe, more important even than a striped top, but I promised to keep my asides to a minimum. If you, as I used to do, think white blouses are boring, may I suggest two remedies:
a. Maybe try a different style of white blouse than the classic buttoned-down version. One, say, without a collar? Or maybe a lacy, delicate version to help you ease into the look? There's nothing corporate or cold or masculine (if such is your complaint) about a white, lacey Edwardian or Victorian blouse.
b. Check out Jane Birkin in a white, button-down shirt, And realize what you have been missing all your life and all you needed in your toolkit was this shirt. (Mine is by Sézane and the belt is from Rouje. I feel like the R confuses people swimming in a sea of Gucci "G"s and it makes me giggle.)
9. A soft neutral sweater in a classic cut
I began buying my sweaters secondhand when I realized I could get Isabel Marant sweaters and cashmere sweaters for peanuts online. I never fret if they pill, and actually, because of the original price point and the quality of the fibers, they rarely do.
Anyway, my point is, this list of classic, built-to-last essentials is within anyone's means if you do a little hunting for quality in a thrift store or on eBay! And all these pieces are easily found and mixed and matched. (Mine in the image above, which I originally shot for a post on "How to Do a Fishtail Braid", is by Isabel Marant from Poshmark. It retails for $400, I think. I got it for $50!) That leads me to the last but not least...
10. White Jeans or White Trousers That You Can Wear Any Season
This is a new one for me and maybe even more challenging than learning to embrace a button-down top-- the one struck me as too conservative before, while the other I felt restricted from wearing in any season by the same conservative mindset I was eschewing. I used to keep my white pants for summer, but the more French style accounts or Jane Birkin fan accounts I follow, the more open I've become to wearing white jeans all year round. If the thought worries you, start a little easier with a pair of beautifully tailored trousers instead.
The beauty of this list is that I'm suggesting you seek out the most basic, neutral pieces from your wardrobe and really start putting them to work, focusing on making them werk for you, instead of buying new, trendy pieces that you never end up wearing more than once. Instead of that noise, focus on caring for the clothes you do own, filling in the gaps in your wardrobe where you find them and then from there, ensure a good fit by getting to know your local tailor or cobbler! Most of all, have lots of fun finding ways to create sophisticated looks with the pieces you own and maybe, every season, a fresh accessory or basic or two.
As I've been exploring finding a sense of my own style through this blog, I've more and more come to appreciate the classic simplicity and elegance of the so-called "French girl". Even if the above pieces felt costume-y and dressed-up at first, more and more I crave a sense of elegance, simplicity, and ease of dressing. I also appreciate that when I buy a piece that fits within that French girl ethos or uniform, a. it's nice to know the piece will probably never go out of style and b. I love that it's easy to mix and match all these basics and always come out of with a stunning combination!
What do you think? Which look is your favorite? Which pieces would be on your own list of necessities?
I don't know when I first realized how wonderful a bargain thrifting was; or how much more fun it was to look for buried treasure in racks of musty garments and boxes of half-heeled shoes. It's been a part of my life for nearly as long as NYC has been: so forever, off and on. I can't remember who took me thrifting just before my freshman year of high school, either, although I do remember the thrill of my very first score: a blue velvet jacket with a mandarin collar and frog buttons-- not actual frogs, but the silky Chinese, buttony kind. I also remember wearing the jacket to my red belt high school in the south, and I remember that I sort of knew what I was doing, too.
That is: I knew what a revolutionary act it was to wear old vintage blue velvet in the land of uniform khaki. I also knew they were voting for superlatives that day. I was not completely flabbergasted when I was voted "Most Unique", probably, mostly on account of that jacket alone. It wasn't exactly a compliment, either, though it was for boys-- the boys that won that category usually also won "Most Popular" or "Funniest" while the girls were considered simply odd. However, it wasn't exactly the worst thing ever to be singled out for something in a school of 3,000 souls. At any rate, whether insult or compliment, the power to use fashion to express a feeling or an attitude hooked me, although for a while I did merge myself with the khaki sea around me, tired of fighting the tide. Still, I did eventually grow up and get out, and ever since, thrifting has been a major hobby of mine. I would now consider myself more of an expert treasure-hunter than a lucky duck. Instead of happening onto the buried loot, I know how to zoom in on where x marks the spot. However, I know a lot of people are intimidated by all the options out there, so here are some of my tips from a misspent youth for thrifting success!
1. If you are overwhelmed by thrifting, ask yourself this basic question first:
Let's call this: square one. What's your favorite color? If you gravitate towards racks with colors that vibe with you-- dove-gray lavender or brilliant lemon or sparkly emerald or prismatic purple-- I assure you, you will find something you love. I 100% guarantee you will pull something off the rack that will delight your soul and your wallet. (And, since it's secondhand, it's pretty nifty for the planet as well.) The odds will be even more in your favor if you add my next tip to the equation.
2. Find a Fancy Neighborhood and Check Out the Thriftstores There!
The best thrifting I've ever found has been in the wealthiest neighborhoods. A lot of people have the terrible habit of wearing things ONCE. ONCE. And then tossing them. It's unfortunately become a habit for people in any socio-economic strata, which is its own issue for another post, but sustainable issues aside, because of this habit, you can find amazing designer steals in neighborhood's where people buy designer clothes. I tend to hit a handful of favorite spots over and over-- Housing Works on Crosby Street or their branch in Park Slope on 5th Avenue or Bring N Buy in Ridgefield, CT or Greene Street in Chestnut Hill. Using this tip, I have found Burberry coats and Jimmy Choo Mary Janes and Theory leather jackets and cashmere sweaters and designer denim galore in spots like that. I even found the spot where the Vogue accessories director was dumping their closet for a bit-- I scored some Jimmy Choo gladiator sandals off that one! However, not everyone lives near or in or close to a fancy neighborhood. If you can't drive or Uber to a hot spot or if you're encumbered with babies and can't peruse the racks for hours, then check out my next tip.
3. Repeat after me: eBay is LIFE!!!
EBay can be pretty overwhelming, I know. I avoided the site for years. The key to success here is a simple two-pronged approach: you either a. search for something extremely specific like a maxi Reformation dress in size 6 or that pale lemon Christy Dawn dress you've been eyeing on Instagram or you b. check in with specific shops on eBay. My favorite eBay shop is called Linda's Stuff. Amazing selection and the prices hover around $24-- even for whisper thin Ulla Johnson tops or that aforementioned Reformation maxi dress.
Do you enjoy thrifting? If so, what are some of your treasure hunting tips? I'm always honing my hunting technique. If you don't enjoy thrifting, I'd love to here from you as well. Also, what's the best thing you've ever found thrifting? Check out my Pinterest board for a few ideas as well!
A Slow Fashion Diary