Sunday, July 28, 2013

How to Dress Like A French Woman: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
A list of proven fashion lessons from our French sisters...updated January 2014. 

A lot has been written about how to dress like a French woman. In July 2013 I spent four days in Paris and made my own list of ideas. Since my original post, I've gotten feedback and comments from several French women approving of the list...and that makes me happy!

Here's the original post:   
Even my husband, not usually tuned in to fashion, noticed “a lack of colorful clothes” on our trip.  He didn’t know it, but he was honing in on the classic strategy of dressing in neutrals.  
And that’s the whole point, really. French women have mastered some classic rules, and they follow them. I think they also show more confidence than a lot of us Americans. One French woman I read said they'd rather look clever than beautiful. 

Most of us want to look like ourselves in ways that make us happy and at ease in our surroundings.  
The French seem able to do this. Day after day, they appear looking effortlessly appropriate and stylishly ready for anything.  That’s why we copy how they dress.

And so my Dos and Don’t’s are really ideas for dressing well, inspired by the French. 

The Do’s are what I saw.  

The Don’t’s are what I did not see in Paris—these are clothes I see a lot in the U.S. (including my own closet), and on travels to the UK.
Did I miss anything?  

DO :
  • Try this uniform: skinny jeans + boots + a great jacket – seen on women from 16 to 60
  • Anchor your outfit with a neutral color
  • Go for excellent fabrics
  • Go for the best quality construction possible
  • Wear clothes that fit – that suggest the shape underneath
  • Aim for grown-up femininity
  • Have well-made shoes (ballet flats, boots, and pumps)
  • Make friends with scarves
  • Favor solid colors
  • Keep your hair natural
  • When in doubt, go for the understated look
  • Wear pastels
  • Buy cheap, “fast fashion” a la Target, Walmart, and Old Navy
  • Choose fabrics that wear out, pill, fade, or fall apart in one season
  • Dress in an overtly sexy way
  • Wear capri pants and a tee shirt as a summer uniform
  • Wear sneakers or workout clothes except for working out
  • Hide your shape under shapeless, baggy clothes
  • Wear head-to-toe colors
  • Wear head-to-toe prints
  • Overdo your hair or makeup
  • Give up on fashion after a certain age
For me, the really compelling idea is that French women give off an air of “I’m happy with myself.” I think it shows self-respect to buy a few clothes that are well-made, expensive, and beautiful – to take clothes seriously, but with restraint. 

The French seem to value food the same way – quality over quantity. And this, too, shows in what we think of as the French fashion “look.” 
Let’s face it—clothes look different on thin people than not-so-thin. And even though obesity is on the rise in France, French women as a whole are still thinner than Americans and British.
As an American woman with a few extra pounds, I know first-hand the complex and usually painful issues most of us have with body image and weight.  They’re closely tied in with how we dress.    
But I take encouragement from what I saw in France. Can we American women use the French example to treat ourselves with as much respect as possible concerning clothing, food, and body-image?
That seems like a great basic rule for dressing well.
Cheers, Sally 
photos used with permission, from

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Expert Advice: How to Buy and Care for Cashmere Sweaters

I’ll never forget the birthday sweater I bought myself three years ago.  It was the most perfect shade of blue and thick, soft cashmere.  The only problem was that after I wore it—once—it was covered with pills under the arms and back.  Into the return package it went.  And you can bet I never bought a sweater from that company again.

I hope this hasn’t happened to you, but I’m guessing it has, if you love cashmere.  

Cashmere is the fiber of the cashmere goat, and it’s been a luxury for centuries.  For most of that time, it was truly a luxury item.  A sweater could cost $200 in the days when $200 went farther than it does today. 

But the last fifteen years have seen an influx of dirt-cheap cashmere into world clothes markets.  More and more manufacturers are selling cashmere, some of it at very low prices.  

Cashmere Goat

isn’t she cute?  Link, here

The good news is, cashmere is more accessible to many of use than  it used to be.  There’s just more of it around—it’s even showing up in thrift stores. 

The bad news is, unless we know what we’re buying, we can be very disappointed in a cashmere purchase. 

Here are some cashmere facts that can help us make good buying decisions (see my sources at the bottom of post).   

  • Today, China has become the world’s largest producer of cashmere—in the past, France and Scotland were top producers.
  • Quality varies according to length and width of fibers.  Width determines softness, while length determines strength.  Long, thin fibers are the best quality and will get softer over time. 

To Test Cashmere for Quality….

  • Rub the surface with your fingers.  Low-quality cashmere will pill almost immediately. 
  • Crush the fabric in your hand.  Fewer wrinkles equal better quality. 
  • Gently pull the sweater.  Good quality springs back to its original shape. 
  • Look for tags that say pure fibers or wool blends only.  Blends with synthetics can mean lower-quality cashmere was used.   

Pish Posh Pashmina

“Pashmina” is not a material separate from cashmere.  It’s a name used to mislead consumers into thinking they’re getting cashmere.  The word “pashmina” comes from the Persian for wool—Pashm.  A garment with a fiber label of “pashmina” in the U.S. is breaking federal regulations that require the exact content of cashmere be disclosed. 

A better use of the word pashmina is to refer to the scarf-like shawl.  Pashminas are super versatile items and I highly recommend having one….but don’t assume it’s made of cashmere. 

Care of Cashmere

Knit cashmere is best hand-washed.  Hand-washing is actually better for the fibers than dry-cleaning, and will result in a sweater that just gets softer over time. 

If you buy cashmere that pills up, try an inexpensive shaver or a sweater comb. 

The Bottom Line

A good-quality cashmere item can last a lifetime if you choose well.  Before you drop good money on cashmere garment, learn what you’re getting.  There’s nothing wrong with choosing a lower-priced, lower-quality garment as long as you know aren’t being misled into thinking it’s something different.  

From:  Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers’ Institute FAQ’s and U.S. Better Business Bureau article on Federal Trade Commission Regulations on Cashmere Labeling.  Albany Times Union, Dec, 25, 2004; “Italy Faces Mounting Threats to Cashmere,” Women’s Wear Daily Dec. 6, 2005. 



Vintage Clothes Shopping in Paris: Freep’Star and Vintage by Ramin

This summer I had the good luck to visit the Marais District for several days—an area known for excellent second-hand and vintage clothes shopping in Paris. 

Below, I’ll tell you what I liked about places I visited, along with some strategies for vintage clothes shopping in this city. 

First, a word about language.  The French word “fripes” loosely translates as second-hand clothes that tend to be of similar quality to what you’d find in an American thrift shop. 
As in the U.S., the word “vintage” also seems to be used in France with some confusion. 

Younger shoppers may use it the way we do in America, referring to clothes that are only twenty or even ten years old.  But my friend Yseult, who’s over 50 and a former Hermes’ employee, told me “vintage” usually implies nicer, older clothes with an actual pedigree. 
On my Marais shopping day, I basically wanted to go thrifting in Paris.  I was looking for fripes.

At the shops I visited, trend-conscious buyers have curated mountains of  second-hand clothes looking for current style value.  The pieces cover a range of quality levels, and they may or may not be old enough to qualify as vintage in the U.S.

Prices at these “friperies” are higher than your average thrift shop, but still accessible (dresses run from 5-15 euros--approx. $6-20). 

My destination:  Free’p’Star and Vintage by Ramin.  Both of these are on Rue St. Croix de la Bretonnerie—a tiny old street in the heart of the funky, historic Marais. 

And so, one afternoon while my travel mates went off to the Champs Elysees, this mouse went out to play…

Free’p’Star, 8 Rue St. Croix de la Bretonnerie.   
Free’p’Star is something of an establishment in Paris and has three boutiques in the 4th arrondissement.  You could visit them all in one afternoon, although I only went to one. 

KINDS OF INVENTORY:  Cut-off shorts, lots of scarves, leather jackets, military jackets, and a great rack of white cotton blouses.  Sale room in the basement—be careful on the teeny spiral staircase.  Did I mention all the scarves?  Prices:  Moderate.  Dresses regular prices are 10-15 euro ($13-20), with sale prices about 5 euro ($6). 

Free’p’Star also has frequently updated stock.  I went back a couple days after my first visit and found a lot of new things, all equally good. 

Vintage by Ramin, 17 Rue St. Croix de la Bretonnerie. 

This shop is newer than Free’p’Star and about the same size.  It’s catering to a similar market and prices are about the same.  Worth checking out.  

KINDS OF INVENTORY:  Along with the usual stuff, I liked the selection of lots and lots of shirts for men and women.  Quite a few 60s and 70s-era vintage dresses.  The 1-euro sale bin in the back was full of vintage (and I do mean vintage) Speedos on the day I visited. 


Avoid crowds.  Especially if you’re used to American shops, second-hand clothes shops in Paris are tiny and feel cramped with even half a dozen other customers.  Go early, late, or on a weekday.  

Plan ahead for trying on.  Recommend wearing a bodysuit or something else you can strip down to for trying things on—there’s not much private space for trying on.

Communicate. Know some basic French phrases.   Be courteous.  Although I’d bet a chocolate croissant you’ll hear American music, you’re on their turf.  The customer is not always right.  

Other second-hand and vintage clothing shops in Paris:  See this excellent list from Paul and Sophie.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Timeless Fashion Tips from Jane Birkin

I’m not too familiar with Jane Birkin’s music or acting careers.  And I know that in her younger years she was often photographed without any clothes at all. 
But I love her fashion sense of today. 
Here are some photos of her middle-age wardrobe.  They remind me of the clothes I saw on women of all ages on a recent trip to Paris: 
Ideas to borrow from Jane: 
Neutrals in quality fabrics…
Monochromatic classics with a subtle menswear vibe.
Comfort and playfulness…
And, finally, the best accessories:  A wide smile and a feeling that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. 
doing business as Chronologie Fine Vintage

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Golden Ratio and Vintage Clothing



Artists and mathematicians have been fascinated by the “golden ratio” for thousands of years.  The golden ratio occurs in nature, and is a mathematical formula used by artists, designers, architects, and fashion designers in creating beauty.  The golden ratio even has a role in vintage clothing. 

What is this magic number?  Technically it’s 1.1688.  But for artistic  uses it’s often simplified to this:  1:1.5, or a 2:3 ratio.

The Swiss architect Le Corbusier applied the golden ratio (as well as the related Fibonacci sequence) in his work.  He believe the golden ratio naturally appeals to the human eye, and that people, regardless of culture, are drawn to it whether they know it as mathematical formula or not.    

Corbusier’s idea is an intriguing one, and there’s a lot of evidence to support it.  Art and science both recognize that faces and figures considered “beautiful” throughout history have features that relate to each other in the golden ratio.  Leonardo da Vinci studied the golden ratio and depicted it in his famous Vitruvius Man (above).

Architecture, art, and design of all media also use a 2:3 ratio in many applications for good aesthetics.  Floral designers are even taught to place stems in a 2:3 ratio to the height of a vase. 

Vintage clothing fans will be interested to know that well-proportioned clothing has historically been based on the golden ratio. 

Here’s a picture from a 1926 high school home economics textbook, in a chapter about proportion in clothing construction.  The figure on the right captures it; the one on the left is off.  The two sections of the dress at right are generally in golden-ratio proportion, and the sleeve divides the girl’s arm into golden ratio sections. 


For more about the golden ratio, here’s a site you might like, and here’s one more.