France is woven into the very fabric of fashion. As well as having major influence on the trends that hit runways worldwide, it’s shaped the language we use to describe them. Collections are haute couture and prêt-à-porter — styles are à la mode, en vogue and avant garde.
Paris lies at the heart of France’s fashion obsession. It is of course home to the prestigious Paris Fashion Week, as well as headquarters of top fashion houses. It’s one of the go-to destinations for clothes shopping, and an incredibly inspiring location for any artist or designer.
The history of French fashion
King Louis XIV, who reigned from 1643 to 1715, is often credited with French fashion’s rise to prominence. He believed extravagance was key to the country’s economic health and the monarchy’s prestige. After all, fashion allowed him to exhibit his wealth and power — surely it could do the same for the whole of France?
He supported the luxury goods industries with infrastructure and subsidies, lessening dependence on imports so France could develop a unique fashion identity. He also introduced dressing etiquettes that strengthened the link between style and societal status. The hedonistic King became a Baroque fashion icon across Europe, and put France on the cultural map.
Throughout the reign of Louis XV and Louis XVI, the extravagance continued. Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s wife, was admired as a fashion icon in her early years, but as the debts piled up public opinion soured. And so the monarchy’s taste for luxury eventually backfired, catalysing the French Revolution (1789–1799). France turned against fashion for its opulence and association with the aristocracy.
Many of the low-class revolutionaries in France became known as the sans-culottes (without knee-breeches) at this time, because they shunned this fashion accessory associated with the bourgeoisie, instead dressing in more modest and simple attire.
However, in the later stages of the Revolution came the Incroyables and Merveilleuses, who wore revealing and eccentric costumes.
France’s reputation for haute couture enjoyed a resurgence in the early 20th century, when couturier houses sprouted up, fashion magazines such as Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire hit newsstands, and fashion designers like Christian Dior achieved worldwide acclaim.
French fashion designers
Alone and on foot, in search of a better life, Louis Vuitton (1821–1892) left Anchay for Paris at the age of 13. Upon his arrival over two years later, in 1837, he became an apprentice at Monsieur Marechal’s box-making and packing workshop.
In 1853, he was appointed personal box maker and packer to Eugenie de Montijo, Empress of France and Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife. It was here he built relationships with high-class clientele, and began to earn himself a name as a specialist in luxury goods.
Vuitton debuted square trunks, which we now recognise as vintage suitcases, in 1858. They were stackable and durable — unlike the dome-topped trunks available at the time. They instantly became a must-have travel accessory.
The Louis Vuitton brand is renowned for its luxury luggage to this day, but has expanded into other markets since its founder’s death. Its first prêt-à-porter collection was revealed in 1997 under the artistic directorship of American designer Marc Jacobs, who also went on to launch the brand’s first jewellery line in 2001.
Much to the delight of many women across France, Coco Chanel (1883–1971) was responsible for making feminine fashion a more casual and comfortable affair. Huge skirts and corsets were out; jersey suits and dresses were in. Chanel’s sporty designs complemented women’s wartime lifestyles, as they entered the workforce and required more practical ensembles.
Many of Chanel’s designs were inspired by her maritime experiences. She is often credited with popularising the Breton striped top — something that immediately springs to mind when we think of French fashion. Chanel is also thought to have coined ‘little black dress’ after creating a simple design that catered to restrained budgets during the Great Depression.
Christian Dior (1905–1957) debuted his first collection in Paris in 1947, wowing the world with strong feminine silhouettes. His voluptuous hourglass designs used lots of fabric: a true decadence following the austerity of the Second World War. Such a revelation, his collection was christened the New Look.
Dior believed he was turning his customer into “flower women” by dressing them with curves and volume. Though the skirts were long and the fabric aplenty, his designs were decidedly sensual and caused quite the stir. The New Look’s impact on both sides of the Atlantic put Paris firmly back on the fashion map.
Yves Saint Laurent
Michel de Brunhoff, then editor-in-chief of the French edition of Vogue magazine, recommended that a young Yves Henri Donat Mathieu-Saint-Laurent (1936–2008) become a fashion designer after seeing some of his sketches. He would later introduce Saint Laurent to Christian Dior.
Saint Laurent became Dior’s head designer in 1957, at the age of 21, following his mentor’s death. Although his debut S/S 1958 collection was widely revered, with the trapeze dress making a particular impact, his later collections received mixed reviews.
The designer founded the Yves Saint Laurent YSL fashion house in 1961, and went on to release hugely popular prêt-à-porter lines. One of his biggest successes was the 1966 Le Smoking, a women’s tuxedo suit that made androgyny a style statement.
Jean Paul Gaultier
Renowned for his irreverent approach to fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier (1952–) has shocked and impressed in equal measure, earning himself the nickname enfant terrible (unruly child).
One of his best-known designs is the cone brassiere Madonna wore during her 1990 Blond Ambition tour. He worked with the Queen of Pop for over 30 years, and even designed for the Princess of Pop, Kylie Minogue.
Although he grew up in Paris, Gaultier has a fondness for a thoroughly Scottish style: the kilt. He has designed a number of men’s skirts since the 80s, and regularly wears the trend himself.
King Louis XIV wore red-heeled shoes, and declared that only a privileged few could do the same. As such, they became associated with prestige and style. It’s a story that likely inspired Christian Louboutin (1963–), whose trademark red soles are instantly recognisable the world-over. His luxurious high-heeled designs have made him one of, it not the, most famous footwear designer in the world.
The French fashion philosophy
Rule 1: Don’t try too hard — but don’t be lazy either
Parisian style is all about effortlessness and simplicity. Nothing’s too try-hard or in-your-face sexy. Hair is unkept, makeup is minimal, and nails are neat. Only one or two pieces of delicate jewellery are used to accessorise. Heels are modest — maybe three inches high — and flats are often favoured.
But a madam or mademoiselle wouldn’t dare leave the house in lounge pants or trainers — unless she’s going jogging. Whether she’s heading to the shops or picking the kids up from school, she’ll always look put together.
Rule 2: Never display a label
You should never look rich or ostentatious. Putting designer names on display is a huge no-no: expensive clothes are bought for their quality, not their label. French fashion icon Inès de la Fressange recommends dressing down expensive pieces — perhaps teaming diamonds with denim — to keep things modest and tasteful.
Rule 3: Keep your colour palette neutral
Apart from a touch of burgundy or navy, French ladies stick to neutrals. Black is always à la mode, but greys, whites and browns will make an appearance. Plains are preferable to patterns and prints — it’s usually the tailoring doing the talking.
Rule 4: Don’t be a slave to fashion
Trends won’t always suit your personality, your shape or your look — so why be a slave to fashion? French women wear flattering clothes that feel great, and steer clear of style fads. This approach will help ensure you look carefree and comfortable. It’ll also give your wardrobe more longevity and versatility.
Rule 5: Invest in quality staples
Since you’re not spending money on the latest trend, you can funnel your fashion budget into buying quality staples. Here are the pieces every Parisian-chic wardrobe needs:
Coco Chanel wore them. Jean Paul Gaultier’s La Male cologne bottle is clad in them. Breton stripes are authentically French — and forever fashionable. Thin, navy, horizontal stripes on a white long-sleeved top make up the traditional — and classic — design.
Ever since Le Smoking hit the runway, French women have been embracing androgynous style. Let masculine silhouettes dominate in the daytime with oversized coats, boyfriend jeans and loose tops. When you want to make a statement, opt for highly tailored suits and pulled-back hair.
And whatever you do, don’t forget the basic white shirt. The fit should be loose, long and straight.
Your jeans should be fuss-free and straight-legged. Choose a fit that sits comfortably between your hips and waist.
Wear your jeans with flat shoes and never have your socks on display. Upturn your hems slightly to let your footwear do the talking, or choose a pair of ankle grazers.
The multitasking handbag
A classic medium-sized brown or black leather handbag in a sleek and simple design should be your go-to for everyday use. Here’s where it’s well worth investing in quality.
The petit biker jacket
Effortlessly cool, you can throw on a black leather biker jacket to give any outfit extra edge. Petite, cropped shapes work best. Avoid superfluous design elements such as studs and statement zips like the plague.
High necks and scarves
Walk the Champs-Élysées and you’ll see many a fashionista wearing a high neck — failing that, a scarf. We’re in love with elegant stand-up collars on structured shirts, jackets and capes. And you can’t go wrong with a classic black turtleneck.
You can’t quite nail Parisian chic in the summer without oversized sunglasses. An absolute must to complete your cool, carefree look.
The trench coat
Designed to protect soldiers in the trenches of the First World War, the trench coat has a long and interesting past in France. The design is still much-loved for its practicality and natural ease. Choose a super versatile camel or navy colour, and get the relaxed look by choosing a looser fit.
In-keeping with the minimalist theme, French ladies love a simple shift dress. Team with oversized sunglasses, pointed pumps, and a quilted clutch for a look Chanel would be proud of.
You can shop for stylish designer dresses here.
Luxurious yet understated, a cashmere sweater is a French fashion staple. Choose a roll-neck design for added style credentials. Browse our knitwear collection to find yours.
Black flats and ankle boots
Parisians love a practical yet pretty pair of black flats — brogues, ballerinas and loafers are all good picks. When it gets nippy out, swap for a pair of simple ankle boots.
What your wardrobe doesn’t need: a beret
Berets are so passé. Just as adopting British style doesn’t mean donning a bowler hat, Parisian chic isn’t achieved with a beret.
For more style inspiration, take a look at our latest edits or shop the entire womenswear collection here at Jules B.