FASHION

A French Girl’s Lifelong Quest for 19 Iconic French Girl Fashion Pieces

She wrote down her dream French girl wardrobe at 14, and she's still chasing it 13 years later.


David Cairns

Lists are incredibly important to me. Every day, I wake up and make a To-Do list of everything from wishing my niece a happy birthday to sending consignment agreements. And when I was 14 years old—yes, I was making lists then, too—I made a master list of the 19 iconic French fashion items I will own before I die. At that point, I was still living in Paris, where I was born, and I had no idea what I wanted to do or where I was going to live when I grew up. All I knew is that before I died I would own a Birkin bag, a pair of Louboutin Pigalle shoes, a Sonia Rykiel striped sweater—even if it meant eating a lot of canned food and living in a shoe-box apartment.

Being me, I drew all 19 objets de désir on the back of my history notes (sorry Monsieur Cagneux!). They were all what you would call timeless classics, and essentials of the French girl‘s dream wardrobe—of her dream life lived well, actually. There was the Burberry trench, which can elevate my beaten Converse and an old pair of Levi’s. There was the Birkin, which can elevate even grocery shopping (there’s nothing sexier than leeks poking out of your Hermès bag, to me anyways). There was the Le Corbusier chair, which can make even my messy room look classy.

When I moved to New York in 2007, where I now work as a curator, I carried this piece of paper with me. I updated it each time I added one of those items to my wardrobe or home: In 2008, I got a blue Agnes b. cardigan and black Repetto ballet shoes, both coincidentally ideally suited to my school’s dress code; in 2009, a white Chanel bag for when I passed my exams; and in 2015, my boyfriend, bless him, saved up to buy me the Louboutins. Come to think of it, all this probably also doubles as an indictment of the lack of evolution in my personal style.

Each orange “X” I made on the master list meant I finally got the item, while a blue “X” meant I’ll maybe get it if I’m nice to my mom. I can’t deny that my mother is a big inspiration for me. A speech therapist, she has managed to raise four kids while helping to pass a law for deaf children to receive better education (two of my brothers are deaf). She’s worked with autistic children and volunteered with the Red Cross to give language classes to immigrants. And she’s done it all, without fuss, in a vintage Chanel jacket.

Celebrate Bastille Day With the Best French Girl-Approved Pieces

The inspiration: Street style during Paris Couture Week Fall 2016, photographed by George Angelis.

There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about this new bag from Givenchy. Givenchy bucket bag, $2,290, farfetch.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Jacquemus’ hit spring collection may be winning Instagram right now, but this staple is something you’ll wear for seasons to come. Jacquemus linen shirt, $297, mytheresa.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Where would she be without a classic scarf wrapped around her neck? The Kooples silk scarf, $105, thekooples.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Wear a lucky talisman around your neck. Maje lucky number necklace, $45, maje.com{: rel=nofollow}.

During the hot summer in the south of France, toss on a barely-there tank. Sandro knit top, $105, sandro-paris.com{: rel=nofollow}.

A french girl effortlessly rocks a bohemian dress; give this blush-hued one from Zadig & Voltaire a try. Zadig & Voltaire ruffle dress, $398, zadig-et-voltaire.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Saint Laurent is the backbone to every cool French girl’s closet. Saint Laurent suede belt, $375, mytheresa.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Every woman inspired by French girl style must own a Louis Vuitton bag – snag this brand new style inspired by the ‘80s. Louis Vuitton New Wave bag, $2,270, louisvuitton.com{: rel=nofollow}.

A classic Balmain knit with brass buttons is a nautical-inspired take on French girl style. Balmain sweater, $528, farfetch.com{: rel=nofollow}.

A flirty denim dress is essential to a French girl’s closet. Alexa Chung denim dress with keyhole, $380, mytheresa.com{: rel=nofollow}.

A chic French girl polishes her look off with a great watch. Tag Heuer Ladies Formula 1 watch, $2,100, tagheuer.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Chloé may be the most sought-after French label of the moment, and you can wear these pants well into fall. Chloé pants, $1,250, mytheresa.com{: rel=nofollow}.

When she is not wearing a ballet flat, the quintessential French girl may opt for a loafer. Bruno Magli metallic loafers, $425, brunomagli.com{: rel=nofollow}.

An A-Line skirt, mini or midi, is a must. Bottega Veneta white leather skirt, $2,980, netaporter.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Red, white, and blue is not just for American girls. Bally stripe turtleneck sweater, $595, bally.com{: rel=nofollow}.

A chic French woman knows she can wear white jeans year-round. AG straight-leg jeans with frayed hem, $215, agjeans.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Parlez-vous françias? Maison Labiche embroidered French sayings shirt, $150, farfetch.com{: rel=nofollow}.

A French girl knows how to show off her best assets, in a chic way. Kenzo knit mini dress, $605, mytheresa.com{: rel=nofollow}.

The French queen of knits was certainly Sonia Rykiel – be sure to snag one of the brand’s classic striped pieces. Sonia Rykiel t-shirt, $263, farfetch.com{: rel=nofollow}.

Embrace a square-toe, even for night. Sergio Rossi crystal-adorned sandal, $750, barneys.com{: rel=nofollow}.

French women know how to dress for the occasion, in an understated manner. Mizuki pearl and diamond earrings, $2,350, modaoperandi.com{: rel=nofollow}.

You don’t need to be french to wear a beret. Maison Michele wool hat, $520, mytheresa.com{: rel=nofollow}.

W may earn compensation on these sales through affiliate programs.

1/23

In 2016, I inherited one of my parents’ Le Corbusier couches. I hate waste, and the idea of saving up for pieces that will last you the rest of your life appeals to me. My parents subscribe to that notion as well, except they are more willing to hunt for a bargain. Years ago, they’d gotten a really good deal on a whole set of Le Corbusier furniture, and had always intended to pass along the pieces to their kids. I made fun of my parents for always haggling, but this couch is such a great example why a little patience can be so worthwhile.

This list is quintessential not despite but specifically because a French girl can come up with these 19 items at 14 years old and still be chasing them 13 years later. I guess that’s why these pieces are timeless. Of course, along the way my fashion tastes have swerved—there were the red Spice Girl sneakers circa 1998, or my fascination with Diesel, circa 2003. But I always came back to these classics. Everyone’s style is influenced by where they’re from and how they were raised, and I’m certain the fact that my mother forced me to wear petite fille modelle smock dresses until I was 10 years old probably imprinted on my sensibility. The French-ness of these 19 items is maybe best explained by the fact that, worn well, they allow women to be négligée, or a little shabby, and elevated at the same time. You can wear that Jean-Paul Gaultier Marinière sweater with running shoes or high heels, with jeans or a skirt. And the fact that you don’t have to think too much when you put them on? That’s the most French thing about them.

The Most Iconic French Girls of All Time, From Brigitte Bardot to Jeanne Damas

French actress Catherine Deneuve at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1966. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Françoise Hardy has been cited as an inspiration for many fashion figures such as André Courrèges, Paco Rabanne, and Nicolas Ghesquière. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Brigitte Bardot, here in 1960, was a French actress, singer, dancer and fashion model, who later became an animal rights activist. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy exits the The Metropolitan Museum of Art following the The White House Symposium on Advancing Global Literacy Meeting on September 22, 2008 in New York City. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Charlotte Gainsbourg attends the Cesar Film Awards 2013 at Theatre du Chatelet on February 22, 2013 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Eva Green started her career as a model in France, eventually becoming Tim Burton’s newest muse. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Since breaking out at age 14, Vanessa Paradis has been the face of Chanel since 1991. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Melanie Laurent attends ‘L’Attrape-Reves’ Paris Premiere at UGC Cine Cite des Halles on October 20, 2016 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Ines de la Fressange attends the Schiaparelli show as part of Paris Fashion Week Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2015/2016 on July 6, 2015 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Soko attends the Gucci Cruise 2019 show at Alyscamps on May 30, 2018 in Arles, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Audrey Tautou arrives at the H&M fashion show during Paris Fashion Week Fall Winter 2015/2016 on March 4, 2015 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Lou Doillon attends the Saint Laurent show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2017/2018 on February 28, 2017 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Lea Seydoux attends the ‘Louis Vuitton Masters: a collaboration with Jeff Koons’ dinner at Musee du Louvre on April 11, 2017 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Constance Jablonski attends Harper’s Bazaar: 150th Anniversary Party at The Rainbow Room on April 19, 2017 in New York City. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Marion Cotillard attends the Chopard and Annabel’s Gentleman’s Evening at the Hotel Martinez during the 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 24, 2017 in Cannes, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Jeanne Damas attends the Tory Burch Regent Street opening on May 22, 2017 in London, England. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Caroline de Maigret attends the CHANEL Metiers D’art Collection Paris Cosmopolite show at the Tsunamachi Mitsui Club on May 31, 2017 in Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Clemence Poesy attends Vogue Foundation Dinner during Paris Fashion Week as part of Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2017-2018 at Musee Galliera on July 4, 2017 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Gabrielle Chanel, known as Coco, the French couturier. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele attends the Glamour dinner for Patrick Demarchelier as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2014 at Monsieur Bleu restaurant on September 29, 2013 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Laetitia Casta attends the Nina Ricci show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2016/2017 on March 5, 2016 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Astrid Berges-Frisbey attends the Chanel show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2019 on October 2, 2018 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Isabelle Hupert attends the 16th Sidaction as part of Paris Fashion Week on January 25, 2018 in Paris, France. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images

Portrait of actress Juliette Binoche. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Getty Images
1/24