A Lesson In Style From Europe

Feb 17, 2011

Have you ever come across an article or book that made you stop for a minute and rethink your perspective on something? Do you adjust what you believe to accommodate the new information or do you simply ignore it and hold onto your opinions? When I came across the article ‘Secrets of French Girls’ by Ellen Wallace on Dead Fluerette’s blog, I couldn’t just read it and move on. I paused and thought for awhile about how the concept of style is learned in North American (specifically Canadian) culture. The process of considering what is emphasized as stylish and of value triggered a whole chain of thoughts. I came to the conclusion I had a lot to learn from this article.

For awhile I’ve been following some avant-garde European style blogs and have noticed a couple of trends emerging. The first being the rejection of consumerism fashion culture; buying poor quality, cheaply made clothes simply because they’re in style this month. The mindless consumption of fast fashion is shunned and the message is fashion is not about mass consumption, but about creativity, resourcefulness and beauty defined by an individual. It is far better to spend time and money hunting down timeless, quality pieces that will last for years rather than a few washes. Quality trumps quantity. It’s not that these bloggers don’t shop at chain stores like H&M or Zara, they do, but they stress the need to question why you are buying what you're buying, and to wear it your own way, not be a slave to corporate advertising.

Images courtesy of http://trendland.net
 The second trend I’ve noticed is the limited use of colour and prints. Almost every outfit I see on these blogs I fall in love with and want to incorporate the look into my own style of dressing. The outfits are simple, yet at the same time visually interesting without the overuse of loud colours and patterns. A neutral colour palette is dominant, colours and prints appeared in moderation. The attention lay in the unexpected shapes and details on classic basics. After awhile I realized that many unique basic pieces were repeated, yet the blogger's skillful art of remixing clothing made this hard to detect. Comparing these blogs to Ellen Wallace's 1982 article about French style I couldn't help but notice that all of the points discussed were more than relevant almost 30 years later.

"French women are more self-confident in general, and this carries over into dressing. They are willing to experiment — say, to roll up the sleeves of a silk shirt and wear it with jeans or stick a gold belt on jeans. I can’t think of any American woman who would do that until she had seen it in a magazine."  

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. For the most part North Americans are taught style through magazines and advertising. Our definition of creativity is quite different than what I’ve seen on European blogs. Now that it’s mainstream and seen everywhere, we add a belt or a hat to a bland outfit and proclaim it an artistic masterpiece. That’s not creativity at all! Creativity is taking something (like plumbing hardware) and using it for something other than its intended purpose (jewellery). Creativity is finding inspiration and translating that into something unique. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to the extremes of Lady Gaga or Marilyn Manson, but rather being creative and finding a balance. 

Images courtesy of www.refinery29.com
"French women avoid clothes that are shocking," she said. "We have a strong sense of not wanting to appear ridiculous. Even in the craziest French fashions, there is always a classical base; clothes must be cut well."

Occasionally in North American culture we see people who are willing to take fashion risks, yet many fail to remember less really is more. It is possible to be fashion forward and stylish without piling on all the trends into one outfit. When there is no unity or cohesion to an outfit, you don't know where to look! This is made even worse when someone is dressed head to toe in cheaply made, ill-fitting clothing that is falling apart straight off the hanger (ahem, Sirens' clothing). Taking a cue from Europeans it would be far better to buy trendy accessories to wear with well made staples.

"They [The French] seem to have a practiced eye for proportion — when the hem goes up, the shoe goes down"

It seems the key to achieving the effortless chic look is balancing proportions and showcasing one’s best features regardless of body type. In theory this concept is simple, but translating this to dressing properly is more challenging. There are some general rules that most North Americans seem to adhere to: a shorter skirt calls for a more conservative top and vice versa, but dressing to fit the proportions of our bodies seems to be something we don’t understand. As a society we are body conscious, but not body aware. We seem lost at changing our clothing proportions as we age. Maybe this is a result of people dressing according to what is trendy, and because of this the art of dressing to showcase your best assets is lost. The plethora of shows like ‘What Not to Wear’ designed to teach women and men of all ages how to dress themselves illustrates that perhaps the art of balancing proportions is not common knowledge among most North Americans.

Image courtesy of http://jerievan.blogspot.com

 "The mother’s influence is very important to a French girl’s developing a sense of style. I remember one time I wanted to buy a turquoise dress and my mother refused, saying it was a bad color. We are taught to be discreet, subtle in our choice of color. There is nothing wrong with bright color, but it has to be worn delicately — it shouldn’t shout at you."

I would venture to say for Canadians (note, not French-Canadians) the main educator of fashion is television, magazines and advertisements. These sources don’t educate people about style and quality. Rather, they provide lessons on how to consume.

After contemplating all of the above I started questioning why my closet is overflowing with items I hardly wear. I think sometimes I am a mindless consumer of fashion and for the health of our environment and sake of my wallet this needs to change. Although I think I will always gravitate towards more free-spirited pieces, I would like to put into practice some of the lessons and styling tips I’ve learned from Ellen Wallace's article. My goal from now on is to reduce the amount of money I spend on cheap, throw away clothing in order to save for well made quality classics. I am going to challenge myself to start collecting pieces that I can wear 5, 10 or even 15 years from now and perhaps even hand down to my future children. 

The article ‘Secrets of French Girls’ can be read in full here.

EDIT: If you enjoyed the above articles you might also like Lavin for H&M a Disappointment. What did we expect? From the blog For Those About To Shop

25 thoughts:

  1. Great thoughts. I'm completely on the fence about some aspects of this. I really love an elegant look, but I do find that I'm drawn to some real bohemian aspects of dressing. I agree with the less is more and also with running mindlessly with trends. I don't necessarily agree with the turquoise dress point. My mother had a European style sense although she ended up wearing jeans and tee shirts all the time. I enjoy being a little more daring. At the end of the day, I believe our fashion choices should reflect our personalities, our moods and ourselves. ~Serene

  2. Thank you for your comment Serene. I too am drawn to some more bohemian-ish? pieces of clothing and I don’t think I could pull off a completely ‘Parisian’ look and feel like myself. That being said, I like how this article got me thinking (and hopefully others) and questioning how I define style and how I consume fashion. I do agree with the idea of saving and investing in some key classic pieces. When I look at my own wardrobe the pieces I reach for over and over are the ones that I waited for and cost a bit more that have not fallen apart after one wash.

  3. What a great post, nice blog hun :)

    Stay gorgeous!

  4. great blog!!love the pictures.Yes, one should invest in quality pieces.But also keep in mind that, now more than every fashion is ever evolving

  5. Emmett, You are so right.....I've cheaped myself out of some wonderful pieces and I've $10ed myself into some crap! LOL

  6. Great post! I really enjoyed reading the article, it's very contemporary too.
    I find it that my wardrobe does not include a lot of basics, in fact, for this new job i've found, i have to keep my outfit dark & basic and I just don't have that.
    But, for me, it's still possible to be chic and go for colour & prints. Spanish & italian women do that perfectly, they can pull a red head-to-toe outfit and gorgeously accessorize a printed maxi-dress for a night out.


  7. These girls have awesome style!


  8. Great post. You should submit it for Links a la Mode...

  9. This is an amazing post hun! Seriously so much substance and a great message. I think i am going to check out the article myself.

    I hope you will check out the giveaway i am hosting! http://alamodeetplus.blogspot.com/2010/11/in-fashion-giveaway.html

  10. i've always admired the french. somehow there's an unspoken panache about the way they dress. love this article, em k!

  11. i love all the things you pointed out in your post. but i'm still lusting over those black giles sunglasses even though i know i will never have them haha


  12. great post! :) I really enjoyed reading it :):):):):) and it made me even happier I am European... well not French, but still ... :) Love your blog :) thanks for sharing your thoughts with us :)



  13. Another thing these European bloggers all have in common, they never smile in photos. Fashion is indeed serious business on the continent.

  14. Are the top two pictures meant to illustrate French dressing? Neither Anna Selezneva nor Daisy Lowe is French, please don't take it as a nitpick with your post though, I find your analysis of the different ways North American and European women develop their style very interesting and well-written.

  15. thought provoking and inspirational. thank you!

  16. Thank you everyone for your comments & thoughts on this topic.

    @ Winegums, Thank you for your question/comment. Although Anna & Daisy are not French these photos (from my understanding) were taken during Paris fashion week. I chose them for this post to showcase a different aesthetic to the mainstream Canadian (and North American) way of dressing. When I attended LG Fashion week last fall in Toronto I observed the general style of the people attending was quite different than the photos I had seen of people attending Paris Fashion Week (or other Fashion Weeks around the world).

    To clarify a bit more for those who aren’t familiar with Canadian culture I would say that in general French Canadians have a more European way of dressing and the style in Montreal is quite different from the style in Toronto or Ottawa.

  17. Dear Emmett,

    As a Torontonian I totally agree with you, not to say that Toronto does not have originality, I think there is plenty of it, it's just less seen than the vast majority of sirens/ hollister/ costablanca clad people.

    I do think though it's possible to dress colourfully and still look sophisticated, you just have to have it in your blood/ culture and not just try to put a colourful item on because that particular colour is in trend that year.

    As a fellow Canadian I would love for us to stay in touch if you would not mind. I am on twitter/ blogger/ bloglovin and facebook. Just let me know if you want to connect and I'll add you where ever you wish.

    Love from Toronto, Canada

  18. This and the 'Secrets of French Girls' article were both interesting reads, thank you. There's one point that I disagree with you on and one point that I agree on, so I'll do the disagree first. I think the concept of basics that have to cost a lot of money but will last a long time is false. I have some high street clothes that fit me well and have already lasted a few years, but the key to getting that is trying them on before you buy and being willing to put them back if they don't flatter you or appear to be of low quality. I personally can't see how a £300 skirt will be better made than a £50 skirt, at some point you start paying for the designer brand name but they're doing nothing extra to earn that money. Another problem with the idea of buying expensive clothes that last for years is what happens when you damage them irreparably, or when you gain or lose weight?

    I do agree with you absolutely that if you learn about fashion from magazines and TV you are being taught to consume needlessly. Of course advertising and fashion magazines rely on there being a 'hot new thing' for you to buy, or a new trend that you will need to learn how to wear, because they need you to buy more and more clothing for their businesses to profit.

    Your decision to stop buying low quality pieces and start saving for quality items is great, for the environment and working conditions as well as for your wardrobe. As I'm a student at the moment my version of that is more like just trying to cut out the low quality clothes and maybe one day I'll be able to afford better quality high street or vintage clothing.

  19. @Trishna, I agree it is possible to dress colourfully and look sophisticated, it just needs to be done properly! But even that statement is subject to questioning because style and what is considered “proper attire” is in the eye of the beholder, although there are certain norms dictated by society.

    It’s nice to come across a fellow Canadian blogger, if you’d like to keep in touch I have bloglovin/google friend connect/twitter so what is easiest for you. I look forward to visiting your blog.

    @Nicola, I agree that price or label doesn’t always equal quality, and that you can find lower priced basics that are well made and last. That being said sometimes it’s hard to put something back if it isn’t perfectly flattering or of low quality because the price is good. In my experience many times a higher end label or brand has better tailoring and is made of higher quality material (for example using silk over polyester) than a fast fashion brand, which is what I will be looking for going forward.

    You had a good point about ruining an expensive piece of clothing or not being able to wear it because of weight fluctuations, I guess you’d be out of luck and money :s

    I can relate being a student on a budget (I am currently saving for something as well, a house) my new approach on investing in quality pieces is patience, for example instead of shopping at Holt Renfrew the moment new lines come out I’ll wait and go to Holt Renfrew Last Call and search through the racks of their sale clothing for quality classic pieces at a discounted price.

    Thanks for reading & sharing your thoughts :)

    ~Em K

  20. The article was a great read, and clearly pretty thought provoking! Great interpretation of the article as well. I enjoyed reading all the different comments and opinions of others that this article prompted. I love that this post has so many readers (myself included!) questioning fashion at a fundamental level. Reading the opinions of others on the article was just as interesting as reading the article itself, and definitley had me thinking about my sense of stye in a different light. Keep posts like this coming :)


  21. 'That being said sometimes it’s hard to put something back if it isn’t perfectly flattering or of low quality because the price is good.'

    This is so true! I'm such a sucker for this, it's only recently that I've realised what a waste of money it is to buy something that doesn't fit me perfectly. So what if it's cheap, I know I'll never wear it when I have better things in my wardrobe already, so it's just money wasted. Good point about sales too, they're great for picking up better quality items than you'd normally be able to afford.

    I meant to mention in my earlier reply, last week when I went down to London a man asked if I was French, and after reading the article that you linked to I'm even more flattered now than I was at the time. :)

  22. Hello from Paris!

    What you wrote was so interesting. Living in Paris has greatly changed my outlook on fashion. Less is more. I buy sparingly and most of all, let my style and self shine through inventive pairing and matching.

  23. Very interesting article. Like Serene, I'm not 100% in agreement though I think points of quality over quantity are very true. But I think there's plenty of room for both quality and craziness in dress, and I often find "Parisian" looks a little dull. No colour, nothing but black and white in trendy shapes. On the other hand, being Canadian too, I know exactly what you mean about our own brand of sartorial problems...; )

  24. I whole heartedly agree (I am European by the way) and I just wanted to say that I absolutely loved this post!

  25. I'm American but I definitely agree that we can learn a thing or two from your fashionable French ladies!


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