Women cottoned on to it a while ago, and it’s high time we men did the same: the French have a certain je ne sais quoi when it comes to matters of style – a unique and instantly recognisable way of dressing that the entire world tries to emulate. It’s an aesthetic based on principles of pared-back sophistication, a fuss-free approach to style that is difficult to decode.
Interestingly, in all its effortless elegance, the archetypal French male’s wardrobe can be surprisingly small, limited to versatile items in a reduced palette of navy, black, white, grey and a couple of other colours at most – all indisputably classic pieces worn over and over again with confidence.
The other secret to French style is the appropriation of utilitarian garments, derived from military and workwear uniforms, which they put together nonchalantly, not even worrying if the occasion requires something dressier.
Let’s see how it’s done:
The 5 Staples Of French Style
1. The Breton Top
Born in 1858 as part of the Act of France, a navy and white striped knitted shirt was the uniform of the French Navy in Brittany. In 1889, Tricots Saint James (a brand you can still purchase today) began producing the shirt commercially in wool and cotton, and it was soon adopted by local workers due to its practicality.
From utility wear to fashion item; iconic male ambassadors of the Breton top have included Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, James Dean and Jean-Paul Gaultier, who has continued to masterfully reinvent the piece in his collections since the 1980s.
Now, it is considered a timeless essential that should be part of any style-conscious gent’s capsule wardrobe.
2. The Pea Coat
Granted, this is a global classic, worn by the European and American Navy since the early 1700s. However, the navy (it is originally navy blue, although you can now find it in many different colours) wool coat has been a staple on the streets of Paris since it was elevated to high fashion by lauded French designer Yves Saint Laurent in the 1960s.
These days, you can find good pea coats on the high street (GAP does some worthwhile versions, for example) or splurge on high-end versions from the likes of Sandro, Balmain or Saint Laurent, which are beautifully fabricated.
If you want something truly authentic, heritage brands like Saint James and Armor-Lux should be your go-to – both produce some superb takes on the French Navy original.
3. The Collarless Shirt
Widely known as a granddad or band collar shirt, this classic workwear piece is typically made from jersey, cotton or linen and comes in a slightly relaxed fit.
Wear it with slim, slightly cropped/turned up jeans or chinos during the day and slip it underneath a blazer at night to nail that sense of relaxed refinement which the French pull off so well.
4. Scarves, Foulards, Cravats
These are key to a classic look that Frenchmen pull off just as well as Englishmen, albeit more casually. You’ll want to take your cues from Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s French Riviera romantic thriller To Catch a Thief (1955), in which hero/anti-hero John Robie dresses for the surroundings in resort wear smartly accessorised with scarves tied closely around the neck.
Alternatively, you could wear a long lightweight scarf draped across your shoulders, a large diamond-shaped foulard tied at the back or even a gavroche (45 x 45cm) twisted and knotted tightly.
To ensure you pull it off like the French, stick to patterns and colours that don’t match/clash with the rest of your look. Head to Hermès for the best investment in this department or find inexpensive alternatives on the high street and in vintage stores.
5. Simple, Slim-Fit Denim
Jeans may be an American invention, but in Paris – where it’s the simple, unfussy pieces that make it to high fashion – they’re even worn in the evening, often combined with a T-shirt and blazer.
Local brands like A.P.C., the epitome of low-key luxe, are built upon the principle of extreme simplicity applied to jeans. Like true devotees, Parisians rarely wash their denim, letting their jeans gradually mould to their shape and evolve into a truly personal wardrobe staple.
There are very few restrictions to where they can be worn, with some Frenchmen even known to switch out the trousers of a dinner suit in place of quality denim.
The 6 French Style Commandments
1. Lose The Collar
Replacing a long-sleeved button-down shirt with a T-shirt, Breton top or fine knit jumper instantly gives your look a Parisian inflection.
Combining these casual pieces with a sharply cut blazer and pair of trousers will see you through a night out in on point style.
Image: Jigsaw SS14
2. Swap Tailored Trousers For Jeans
This time, keep the shirt and suit jacket, but sub in a simple pair of raw, dark denim or solid indigo jeans – this will help you achieve the laid-back yet refined aesthetic you’ll find in the French capital’s most stylish restaurants and cocktail bars.
Image: Sarar SS14
3. Embrace Your Inner Enfant Terrible
An edgier alternative to your stuffily formal blazer, a black leather jacket gives your look an air of rock-inspired irreverence.
Keep the aesthetic consistent with a pair of Chelsea boots.
Image: Tiger Of Sweden AW14
4. Wear Black-On-Black
This classic look dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when French stars like Yves Montand and Jean Gabin sported black shirts and roll necks.
Team these key pieces with black tailored trousers and shoes for a smart and sophisticated aesthetic.
Image: Sandro AW14
5. Try Navy And Black Too
Taking the traditional black-on-black look and subtly twisting it was another one of designer Yves Saint Laurent’s discoveries.
The key is to alter the texture of each piece to create a definitive contrast between these two dark hues.
Image: Louis Vuitton AW13
6. Learn The New ‘Attention To Detail’
In matters of French style, paying attention to detail might well mean ditching a few of the finishing touches.
This is a difficult technique to master but start simple by wearing a jumper without a T-shirt underneath, going sockless, beltless or leaving out layers (an overcoat with just a T-shirt, for example) – all of which, when well executed, say you’re far too cool to care.
Et voilà: a few timeless style tricks straight from France that anyone can benefit from. Whether you see yourself trying them or not, we want to hear your thoughts – très chic or terrible?
In the meantime, neatly summarising this brief overview of French style, here’s a quote from tastemaker Jean Cocteau: “Style is a simple way of saying complicated things.”