“To be elegant is first of all to know oneself, and to know oneself well requires a certain amount of reflection and intelligence. Consequently, a woman who is utterly stupid will always find it extremely difficult to become truly elegant. She will imitate any fashion that happens to strike her fancy, without attempting to adapt it to her particular case, to her particular figure, to her particular life – even when the fashion in question was obviously created for a type of woman completely different than herself.”
- Genevieve Antoine Dariaux
I have spent way too much time reading “how to” books and blogs on the riveting subject of being or becoming French. Over the years I have read profound reviews on such fascinating subjects as: how to dress like a French woman, how to eat like a French woman, how to diet like a French woman, how to cook like a French woman, how to shop like a French woman, how to decorate like a French woman, how to be chic like a French woman, how to be thrifty like a French woman, how to age with style like a French women, how to speak like a French woman, how an American girl is transformed into a French woman… and other such riveting topics.
Those around me have always been amused that I gravitate to such frothy girly-girl themes. I can’t explain it, but like most extremely well-educated women, I walked the hallowed halls of academia for many years, I know that when I am exhausted I want to read mindless and poorly researched piffle as a form of pure escapism.
I prefer French chic-lit to royalty or rich and famous gossip rags. I proudly counter my critics by claiming that it is my form of escapism but that I also read The Economist, Nature, and Science, and am a political news junkie to boot. That I feel I have to justify this silly little habit is probably something I should at some point consider in the abstract… But to be truthful, I often pick out an item or two that I adapt to my lifestyle.
Like every country, France has its own unique culture. Culture is a learned system of shared beliefs, customs, values, behaviors and material items that characterize a society in a place and time. Culture is a complex adaptive tool. Cultures are not static and are in a constant state of flux.
Unlike countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States, where the majority descend from immigrants, France is a country dominated by indigenous aboriginals. France is their ancestral home. These aboriginals share a similar cultural narrative including inter alia: a recent history dominated by war and it’s cumulative impacts (French Revolution, two World Wars, the Algerian War), the Academie francaise, a unique blend of centrist controlled secularism with Catholic underpinnings, socialist values and high taxes (resulting in for example exceptional health care, child care, educational and transportation systems), a love-hate relationship with the trappings of royalty and extreme wealth, fierce nationalism, a strong focus on family rather than individualism, agricultural protectionism, national marketing of domestic products and cultural artifacts, a high priority placed on food, wine and fashion, a strong focus on media and the arts, and a strong ethnocentric belief that the way they do “it” (no matter what it is) is the best in the world.
France’s cultural luxury products are extremely well-promoted, particularly in France. As a result the French are brought up to believe that if something is not made, grown or designed in France, the resulting product is inferior. The exceptions are necessary luxury goods that have been well-branded, for example American and Japanese computers and German cars.
Living in France is very expensive, particularly in Paris – the largest city in France by an order of magnitude. After taxes, average salaries have very little buying power. The average Parisian has a very small apartment. Closets are minuscule to non-existent. French luxury products are very expensive. The cumulative impact of these variables is that the average French woman cannot afford to own many items, nor does she have the space to put much even if she could. These realities have resulted in tiny space-based cultural adaptations that work for them.
Capsule wardrobes are a pragmatic small space solution. They have been romanticized by many… As of today when I typed in “capsule wardrobe Paris” I got 1.6 million hits (550 thousand if I add 2014 into the search engine) – so there is a lot of eye candy if you need inspiration.
I will save you all money and time best spent elsewhere and tell you their “secrets.”
The key mantra is to invest in a high quality capsule wardrobe that will form the base, if not the entirety, of your wardrobe. It’s about quality not quantity, remembering that the value of any wardrobe item equals the number of times you wear it divided by its price (value = use / price). I strongly support the idea of buying quality, to increase the use – there is a lower limit on price, but no upper limit on use.
The list below is based on a synthesis I conducted on 30 French capsule wardrobe web sites (I am a bit OCD).
Paris – Capsule Wardrobe: The Ingredients
Basic rules: only buy quality items (preferably French) that fit you perfectly, make you feel comfortable in your skin, and are in good shape (if a repair is needed, then repair it, don’t wear it). Stick to a neutral pallet (black, grey, navy, brown, white/cream, burgundy) and add colour through accessories/tank tops/t-shirts. However, if you look and feel best in pastels or jewel tones, go with it.
The basic list:
- 3+ button down shirts (black, white/cream, vibrant color);
- 2+ tank top/tee shirts (black, white);
- 2 cashmere round/v-neck sweaters (black, navy, cream);
- 1+ silk sweater
- 3+ jean/capri/cargo pants (blue, black, white/beige);
- 1 little black dress (LBD);
- 1 wrap dress;
- 1+ black/navy/beige suit (blazer, pants, skirt) – buy as an ensemble or as complimentary separates.
- 1 classic trench coat;
- 1 leather jacket;
- black patent ballerines;
- classic black pumps/heels (but not too high);
- good walking shoes (loafer);
- ankle boots;
- a great belt;
- sunglasses; and
- depending on seasonality of where you live/travel you may also need: a winter coat, shorts, light weight skirt, sundress.
- To add color and glitter accessorize: scarves (Hermes if you can), jewelry, and purses (high end French of course [e.g., Chanel, Hermes] but with no visible logos);
- 2 matching underwear sets in the right size (tip – buy 2 or 3 panties to extend the shelf life of the bra… because you don’t want to have a pantyless bra see my previous post on lingerie); and,
- mix things up – to add some individuality to this very standard uniform ensemble.
Advice suggests that from 5-30 pieces form the basic capsule wardrobe.
I am not sure if this basic 2014 “Paris” uniform is much different than what I have been wearing most of my life, I just have a lot more. I have one for each season… I am comfortable with this.
On the one hand, I can understand the necessity of a capsule wardrobe if you live in a small space or for traveling; however, when space is not an issue, does it really matter? I am not sure that I would be comfortable in my skin in living with such a minimal wardrobe for an entire year. Furthermore some of the recommendations for style such as tight jeans, pencil skirts and tanks (items that are often recommended on web lists) would be rather silly on a mid-century modern me.
From a theoretical perspective I have a fundamental problem with the concept of having a recipe for everything unless what you are looking for is cookie cutter clones. I guess this is where my Canadian individualistic style sensibilities take over.
But to give this theoretical construct a fair chance I will give it a shot. Over the next month I will assemble a minimal capsule wardrobe inspired from the above, but reflecting my own taste, and I will test out this hypothesis through the fall, winter and spring. I will report back on my thoughts at the end of the experiment.
“Building a proper a wardrobe is like building a home. Indeed, you should think of it like a home, because it is something you’re going to live in. It must be comfortable and suit all your needs.”
- Edith Head