I first went to Europe when I was 16, on a Portland Youth Philharmonic tour, after which I met up with my (stylish) grandma, my sister Miranda, and my cousin Amy for more sight-seeing. This was in the days before everyone had internet (wow, I'm old), so it was my first experience outside of movies and magazines seeing European style. I spent the entire trip trying to dissect what made the women there look so different and so much more sophisticated than American women. Here's what I came up with: they wore mostly neutrals - no hot pink here, they wore nice shoes ALL the time - no "walking" shoes, and they looked beautiful but didn't seem to be wearing any makeup.
My obsession with (specifically) French style hasn't abated since then, and I recently picked up a book that does the job I was trying to do - Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott.
The author did a semester abroad in Paris living with the "Chic" family and assimilated all of her experiences into this book, which truly is a reference to keep on hand. This is real, practical, every-day advice for living the French life.
I won't give away all of the secrets, but there were a few points that I had to share.
The overarching philosophy of the book and of French culture is quality over quantity in everything: a philosophy I try hard to implement, but always need reminders here and there to bring me back to it. It's worth it to spend mindfully for quality food and clothing rather than on mindless eating and shopping. (BTW - this is the same argument used in Overdressed about ethical fashion - notice a theme?) The French would rather spend on these things than a fancy car or more square footage. This also applies to how you spend your your free time. Get out and explore your city instead of watching reality tv (guilty).
A major part of the book focuses on refining your wardrobe - down to 10 core items. I am so inspired to try this. The author notes how French people repeat items multiple times per week, which is a faux pas in America. I say get over it - people should have more to worry about than how many times you wore a particular item of clothing. For the most part, I wear 1 pair of black skinny pants, 1 pair of black bootcut pants, and one pair of dark skinny denim. I wouldn't miss the rest of it. Jennifer (yep, we're on a first name basis now) has a great list of "Wardrobe Assessment Questions" for helping weed out the excess.
One of my favorite chapters is about how French women are "bien dans sa peau", or comfortable in their own skin. It's something I couldn't put my finger on, but is so well described in the book. Try to imagine a French woman saying disparaging things about herself - it wouldn't happen! They seem to accept that their "flaws" make them who they are and are comfortable with them. Pointing them out to others only calls attention to them. I think about Charlotte Gainsbourg or my icon Sofia Coppola (yes, she's American, but pretty much an honorary French girl) - neither are conventionally beautiful, but they've embraced their uniqueness. I have a few friends (who will know who they are) who are absolutely gorgeous, yet don't allow themselves to see this because they are comparing themselves to others instead of recognizing their own beauty. I am certainly guilty of this sometimes (aren't we all?) but try to remind myself life is too short to spend energy on this. Most people are similarly focused on themselves and don't notice what I might consider to be a glaring flaw. Jennifer points out (and I've similarly made the point on this blog) that knowing your personal style makes this easier, that when you're confident in what works for you and what you love, you feel and look better.
There's much, much more inspiration (about makeup and exercise and entertaining) in the book. I'm inspired to make June my month of living well the French way. If you'd like more, Jennifer has a lovely blog full of wisdom, I started a "french girl style" board on Pinterest, and you can read my post about refining your personal style here.