Clothes-Minded—March 4, 2008

By Allison Cassing

About this time last year, I was editing my wardrobe into a fashionable spring collection for my quarter abroad in Paris. As with most travel, I wanted to have enough and then some (one underpacking experience and you forever overcompensate), but I was hoping to be able to manage my suitcases on my own upon arrival—cheers to free luggage carts in France! My friend, who had studied there in the fall, suggested just to bring my favorites.

Unfortunately, most of my clothes are my favorites, and it’s quite hard to pick one good friend over another. So I packed what I could, wore a few extra layers in transit, and arrived in Paris with what I hoped would be a closet full of très chic pieces. Paris, the fashion capital, would teach me a lot about polish and charm. People-watching in the City of Lights is like flipping through a glossy editorial spread. However, it’s often the styling, not the clothes, that make the outfit. Through my stay in Paris, the core of my wardrobe stayed the same, but my styling changed.

The purpose of sunglasses in France is quite clear—they are to be worn over the eyes, not as a headband, necklace, or other accessory. As a devoted sunglasses-wearer, I always have a pair with me (much chicer than eye cream for wrinkle prevention), but no longer do I flip them to the top of my head to see indoors. Take a cue from the Parisians and keep your sunglasses in a case in your bag when the sun sets. The whole idea is to maintain a polished look—no loose threads, stocking runs, or haphazard sunglasses placement. When I’m not feeling like a celeb at a runway show (though there’s certainly an allure to the indoor, shaded attendee), I use my huge sunglasses case to house my oversized sunglasses. While there is definitely quirky, out-there fashion in France, sunglasses-cum–Mickey Mouse–ears haven’t quite made it yet. So wear your sunglasses at night—or keep them in your clutch.

I stopped wearing gloves in Paris. All the gloves were on sale, yes, and it was definitely cold enough for them. Maybe I was seeing things, but the Parisian women I noticed seemed to have eschewed the gloved look. So I decided to try it out; hey, when in Paris…. Now, in no way would I suggest burning your gloves in Chicago, but the lack of hand covering did make me take more notice of my hands. The upkeep of my nails became very scheduled, and for that habit alone I must thank the gloveless Parisian women. Who knew that not wearing something could be a style too? Upon return, back with my American glove-wearing ways, I fell for a pair of bronze driving gloves with knuckle hole cut-outs that I think the French may have had a hand in. It’s the perfect Franglaise glove—a bit of exposure and warmth topping a flawless manicure.

So many scarves! Écharpe, foulard, cache-col, cache-nez…the French have many words for the prized accessory. As a bit of a Francophile, I have often added scarves to my stateside outfits to get that French flair and je ne sais quoi that only a well arranged scarf can provide. The scarves and their wearers come in all styles; a model-type with her tiny dog engulfed in huge scarf, the chic businesswoman with a neatly tied printed silk square, the twentysomething wrapped in his mod stripe knit—I could list a warehouse-worth of Parisian scarf styling. We can’t all knot scarves with a Parisian panache, but we can definitely take a page from their book and use them to finesse a certain look. A chunky knit can dress down a party frock while an airy chiffon takes a T-shirt to the opera.

Fashion is ephemeral, but style has stability. How does a Parisian pull an outfit together that is original, slick, and one step ahead? Sadly, there is no cheat sheet to hand around with the must-have pieces that will immediately transform you into a style savant, but lots of people-watching and taking mental notes are good places to start. It isn’t the Hermès scarf or newest Chanel sunglasses that make the French so stylish, but the way the ensemble is worn. So pay attention to detail, check the mirror, and don’t be afraid to shun the norm in the name of fashion. Take inspiration from the practiced stylings of the Parisians, and you, too, can live a voguish la vie en clothes.