French women are legendary for their style. (One need only glance at Charlotte Gainsbourg, Garance Doré, and Lou Doillon for evidence.) With French heritage on my mother’s side, I grew up hearing the language spoken in my family and dreamed of living in France one day. But, I wanted the authentic Parisian experience, beyond the sights and smells of the Champs-Élysées, the Parisian equivalent of New York’s tourist-jammed Times Square. I would daydream about windy cobblestoned streets, dimly lit out-of-the-way coffee shops, secret gardens, four-course dinners cooked by a husband and wife, soft jazz, and all the romance and mystery of The Real France. I wanted to master the accent, effortlessly toss up a low chignon, throw on layers of black in assorted textures, and eat a baguette every day. I wanted to own some of that style.
So, after launching my own company that allows me to work from anywhere, I bid au revoir to the hustle and bustle of my Manhattan life to move to France for six weeks and write. I planned to fully immerse myself in French heritage, whether that meant reading Balzac or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, discussing Coco Chanel’s fashion philosophy (still very en vogue today), learning to cook macarons in a private home, purchasing all my food from farmers' markets, speaking for hours over espresso about French culture and customs, and nibbling cheese in a park. I was determined to get to the bottom of French women’s seemingly effortless, innate style. But, as a new friend who lived in an eighth-floor walkup overlooking the Eiffel Tower told me, French style is very complicated. So, I learned by example. I watched, I listened, I questioned, I took notes, and eventually, I took my knowledge to the streets. I had more than a few mishaps, but by the time I was ready to fly back home to New York, I had achieved the ultimate compliment: An elegant French madame approached me to ask directions.
Besides avoiding the obvious — Hawaiian shirts, denim cut-off shorts, activewear — there are also more nuanced ways to blend into Parisian culture. Whether you’re heading out on a holiday trip or planning next summer’s getaway, read on for 12 ways to ensure you’ll never look like a tourist in France again.
Dress In Neutrals With No Visible Labels
For traditional French women, an outfit will generally involve just three colors or fewer, probably neutrals or basic primaries like red. Coco Chanel’s philosophy was to highlight the woman wearing the clothes over the fashion itself. For her, the clothes were the frame, the woman the work of art. Chanel’s understated elegance still permeates French fashion, which also generally eschews items with brand names or logos scrawled over them. Instead, be creative with textures like chiffon, leather, tweed, knits, and silks, and layer them together.
Work A Scarf
Make scarves the pièce de résistance of your outfit. This can be where you work in your pop of color or pattern or texture. Plus, a brighter floral or plaid scarf draws attention upward to your face.
Avoid Bright Lipstick
One of my favorite accessories is bright lipstick — a vivid red or even purple — and I sported it proudly around France for weeks. But, I was surprised and disappointed to learn it is considered slightly vulgar in France. So I may sport bright-red lips daily around the streets of Manhattan, but in France, I kept it nude.
Speak Softly On The Subways
I remember my first trip to Europe in high school, sitting on the subways laughing and joking with friends until a grumpy local not-so-kindly asked us to “sshhhht.” Looking back, I can understand her grumblings. In France, public transportation is a no-talking activity — most travelers speak softly or not at all. While it can be tempting to giggle with girlfriends about that cute stranger or plot your next excursion, keep your voices down and respectful.
Stroll, Don’t Speed-Walk
In Manhattan, it is easy to wish that sidewalks had their own designated HOV lane. With everyone scrambling to and from work or happy hour, we are used to speed-walking around town. But, in France, the pace of life is much slower. Employees rarely work over 40 hours per week, leaving ample time for enjoying meals and drinks with friends. And this more leisurely mind-set carries over into walking habits. So, take a deep breath and resist the urge to bolt down the street. Who knows what exciting details will catch your eye when they’re not just a blur in your periphery?
When At A Standstill, Read...But Not On Your Phone
Although France is a very modern country, somehow the tech boom has not taken over the way people relate to each other. I was surprised to observe most people still using “a brick phone,” rarely reading, texting, scrolling, beeping, or plugging into their smartphones! Instead, many locals will read a book, magazine, newspaper, or just chat with each other in person. So, when abroad, unplug to blend in.
Drink Espresso, Not A Venti
As the saying goes, it is a marathon, not a sprint, and this seems to apply universally to French culture. Many Americans would take their coffee intravenously for a quicker jolt. But, in France, sipping a tiny espresso is a ritual rather than a kick-start; it could easily last for an hour or more. And note: If you order un café, you’ll get an espresso; so be sure to specify if you want un café avec du lait (with milk), or un café américain for a slightly larger size…But, then again, that might make you look like a tourist.
Savor Your Meal
From café to bistro, Michelin-starred restaurant to home kitchen, dining in France is serious business. With an almost sacred culinary tradition, the French take special care in the art of cuisine preparation. Eating is to be savored, not rushed. In fact, when at a restaurant, you may wonder why your server never brings the check. You have to ask for it when you’re ready! Your meal will likely involve at least three courses, leaving you perfectly satisfied and never stuffed. Plan at least one and a half hours for each meal — and enjoy each of them!
Let Your Eyebrows Go
When it comes to makeup, French women often go au naturale. Or, they meticulously work for hours to look like they did nothing. Makeup application is subtle, but skincare is a top priority. French women do not want to look over-plucked, preened, or primped; to achieve the natural look, give your skin permission to breathe and your eyebrows a chance to grow. Soft, full brows are a signal of youth and relaxation. If the thought of going completely naturalemakes you break out, calmly transition with a high-quality moisturizer with SPF and maybe a little concealer for tough spots. Only wear mascara or eyeliner out to a party.
Leave Your White Athletic Kicks At Home
When it comes to footwear, the French take special care. A cardinal sin is wearing white athletic sneakers. This would be more disruptive than donning a T-shirt saying, “Vote for Pedro,” and will mark you as a tourist. If you must wear white sneakers, you may be able to swing it if they are Puma. But, try to avoid visible labels!
Have A Baguette For Dinner
In place of supermarkets and chain franchises, artisan boulangeries, charcuteries, and pâtisseries line every avenue. There is nothing more French than popping into one of them with your bag and slipping in a fresh-baked baguette to bring home for dinner. Pick up a stem or two of fresh flowers from the street corner to add to the table centerpiece.
Get A Car-Share Instead Of Taking The Train
Bla Bla Car is an up-and-coming start-up car-share service that has taken France by storm and reshaped the way travelers cross the country. While trains are quiet and often comfortable, they are also far more expensive than Americans may be used to. Instead, the adventurous traveler can now meet more local French people, learn about the culture, practice the language, and save hundreds of dollars by sharing through Bla Bla Car. Just type in your city of origin, destination, and date to begin speaking with drivers and arranging your itinerary.
This article first appeared in Refinery29 by yours truly.