Adapting the French Wardrobe

I really like the idea of the "French wardrobe," where you create a capsule wardrobe with a small number of high-quality, timeless basics, and you mix and match to create different looks. Most lists of French wardrobe or capsule wardrobe basics are very rigid, however. Here's a representative list (melded together from several sources).

Sample French Wardrobe Checklist
  1. Black blazer
  2. White button-up dress shirt
  3. White silk day-to-night shirt
  4. Black slacks
  5. Black pencil skirt
  6. Little black dress
  7. White cashmere V-neck sweater
  8. White T-shirt
  9. Black cigarette pants
  10. Classic beige trench coat
  11. Black pumps
  12. Black flats
  13. Black leather handbag
  14. Silk scarf
  15. Diamond stud earrings
  16. Gold watch

This sounds like a very classy wardrobe, and although the items are expensive, if this was really all you owned, you'd keep your wardrobe costs down by not buying extraneous items and not replacing things. You'd "buy it for life" to whatever extent you could on all these things. You'd have to do a lot of rewearing between washes, but high-quality items could take it, and you could always hand-wash your silk shirt or whatever at night. You wouldn't have to think much about what you wore, but you'd always look fantastic.

Here's the problem. White, black, and gold all look terrible on me, as does trench-coat-beige. I get why these colors are specified: they're classy, versatile, clean, crisp. They're neutrals that go with everything and they're the colors that the items, classically, come in. But they're not my colors. And they've decided on light colors for tops and darks for bottoms, when the reverse works better for my topheavy shape.

The cuts don't all work on me, either. Crew neck tees don't look good on my large bust. A V-neck is better. Skinny jeans and pencil skirts look good on me, but not on everyone. Blazers look good on me, but I know some people who look better and even more professional in a really nice cardigan.

And, certainly, coat and outerwear needs will vary by region. This list assumes mild seasons.

Not everyone has pierced ears.

Et cetera.

Here's my more generalized French wardrobe process.

Preliminary Steps

Step 1: Find your seasonal color palette.

Step 2: From your palette, pick your favorite from each category. You can pick more than one.
  • Dark neutrals (e.g. black, charcoal, navy, espresso)
  • Light neutrals (e.g. white, ivory, beige, most grays, pale pink, French blue)
  • Brights (pretty much anything here, just be specific; e.g. brick red, magenta, peacock blue, pumpkin, plum)
  • Metals - do you look best in silver, gold, rose gold, platinum, copper/bronze, or several of these? (For jewelry, accents, etc.)

Step 3: Choose if you want light color tops and dark color bottoms, or the reverse. We'll call these LOT (light on top) or DOT (dark on top).

Generalized French Wardrobe Checklist
  1. Blazer or professional-looking cardigan in a dark neutral
  2. Button-up dress shirt in a neutral (light for LOT, dark for DOT)
  3. Silk day-to-night shirt in a neutral (light for LOT, dark for DOT) OR a bright
  4. Slacks in a neutral (dark for LOT, light for DOT); simple patterns such as pinstripes OK if DOT
  5. Pencil or A-line skirt in a neutral (dark for LOT, light for DOT); simple patterns such as pinstripes OK if DOT
  6. Versatile work-appropriate day-to-night dress in a dark neutral, in any cut that flatters
  7. Cashmere sweater, your choice of cut/neckline, in a neutral (light for LOT, dark for DOT) OR a bright; simple patterns such as stripes OK if LOT
  8. Casual shirt, your choice of cut/neckline, in a neutral (light for LOT, dark for DOT) OR bright; simple patterns such as stripes OK if LOT
  9. Casual pants or skirt, e.g. blue jeans (dark wash if LOT, light or medium wash if DOT) in any cut that flatters
  10. Classy looking coat of some kind, adapted to your weather
  11. Pumps or flats to wear with skirts in any neutral
  12. Boots, flats, or casual shoes to wear with pants in any neutral (or, what the hey, a bright)
  13. Handbag in any palette color (even brights!)
  14. Statement accessory in a bright for a splash of color, e.g. silk scarf or hat; patterns OK
  15. Subtle jewelry in your metal and/or a neutral palette-friendly stone
  16. Statement jewelry in your metal and/or a bright palette-friendly stone

Here's how I personally would meet that list with items I already own.

Bagel's French Wardrobe Attempt (True Summer)
  1. Charcoal wool blazer
  2. Navy cotton button-up
  3. Hot pink cotton button-up (not silk, but whatever)
  4. Navy pinstripe rayon slacks
  5. Navy pinstripe wool pencil skirt
  6. Plain navy knee-length boat-neck rayon dress
  7. Gray V-neck merino wool sweater (not cashmere, but whatever)
  8. Navy merino wool relaxed fit V-neck T-shirt
  9. Light wash straight leg jeans (being realistic about what jeans I wear the most--although I think the medium-wash skinny jeans look better on me, in pure fashion terms)
  10. Gray wool peacoat
  11. Navy pumps
  12. Black leather ankle boots (not palette, but whatever - these are really comfy)
  13. Sea glass handbag
  14. Aqua and navy starfish print chiffon infinity scarf
  15. (I don't own any subtle jewelry)
  16. Chunky blue jasper necklace

I have more clothes than this--I'm not willing to declutter down to this point, and I do think there are legitimate reasons to have more than one of certain slots, and to have more casual clothes and other things--but I feel a lot better knowing that my wardrobe basically contains a French-style capsule wardrobe adapted to my colors and styles. It's still timeless basics, it's still professional and classy, but it's just a little more personalized. I don't have to throw out everything I already own and love, and go out and buy a bunch of stuff that doesn't look good on me, to be more minimalist or chic or adult or whatever. The power of the French was in me all along!


  1. Interesting haven't heard about this before. I guess this way people who are trying to be minimal will end up looking fashionable :)


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