How to Layer Like the French

September 17, 2012

This post is sponsored by eBay. From the new to the hard to find, when it’s on your mind, it’s on eBay.


When I posted this year’s What to Wear to School posts, I mentioned how the kids like to layer their pieces, and I’ve been getting emails asking for layering advice. So I thought I’d write up a little guide on How to Layer Like the French and share what I’ve learned.

It’s something we didn’t do before we moved to France, but I have no idea why, because we lived in places like Colorado and New York where the weather changes frequently and layering makes good sense. I think it’s partly that we kept our house at a warmer temperature than we do here, and I think it’s also partly just old habits.

Since we arrived here and started observing the locals, layering has become our daily way of dressing. To show you what I mean, I built the outfit above. And, because horseback riding lessons are currently part of our life, and riding boots are on my shopping list, I tried to work in an equestrian vibe just for fun. : ) Here are the sources: 1- scarf, 2- cardigan, 3- blouse, 4- pants, 5- boots, 6- bag, 7- cape.

And here’s what I’ve learned about layering from the French:

- It’s never just a top and a jacket. You start with a blouse or button down, then you add another layer — like a cardigan or pullover. Then, you top that with a jacket or coat. If it’s mid-winter, you can add a t-shirt as a base layer and then put the blouse, sweater, coat on top of that.

- But you’re not done yet! You still need a scarf to complete the outfit. The only time I’ve seen French women not wearing scarves is at the beach. Not exaggerating.

- The women I observe choose layering options in classic conservative colors (like navy, brown and black) and they wear the items frequently and expect to get a lot of use out of them. Notice that almost everything in the outfit above is in gray or black — and would be easy to pair with other pieces.

- The bold color of the shirt looks especially bold in this layout, but really, only a bit of the color would be peeking out when the outfit is actually on a person. A little color seems to go a long way in France.

- And speaking of color, another place my French friends are more likely to add in a bit of brightness is a scarf. Because it’s an item that can be easily switched out (or removed if it’s not making the kind of statement you want to make), it’s a good place to try something new.

Have you tried layering? Does it work for you?

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lamchops September 17, 2012 at 10:20 am

Not that many because the SW does not get that cold. But YES layering is where it’s at. It is a great way of giving structure yet versitility!


2 unfounddoor September 17, 2012 at 10:34 am

Am a massive layerer – the mercurial weather her in London makes it a necessity. I am a big fan of layering up two cardigans: tank top, deep-V tee (short or long sleeved depending on weather), then a very fine knit cardigan followed by a bigger, chunkier cardigan. I like the successive”V’s” and buttons.
A short sleeved coat is a weirdly useful layering item too, as you can wear it over a slim fit jacket / blazer when it’s cold or over a sweater or long sleeved tee.
I find sticking to natural fibres (cotton, silk, wool) helps me avoid getting to grossly sweaty when going into the crowded Underground all layered up in winter.
In terms of proportion I tend to stick to a slim bottom half to balance a multilayered top, and I add colour with scarves and bags too…

After all that, I’m actually excited for Autumn dressing now :)
Love that cape.


3 Design Mom September 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Oh. I can totally imagine that as a Londoner you must be a layering expert! I agree with your thoughts on proportion. I love a slim pant to counter-balance all those top layers.


4 Victoria September 17, 2012 at 10:51 am

Love the pieces you picked here. We’re enjoying gorgeous prolonged summer days here, but the fall will arrive shortly and I’ll be sure to start the layering for those chilly days to come.


5 Christy @SweetandSavoring September 17, 2012 at 10:53 am

I love layering- leggings, dresses, scarves, wraps, cardigans, arm warmers, funky secondhand button-downs…the only thing I don’t have yet are the boots. I’ve got a severe case of boot lust and just can’t wait until I find that perfect pair :)


6 Jennifer F. - American Mom in Bordeaux September 17, 2012 at 12:22 pm

So true – the French really do know how to layer. I love your comment that the only time you don’t see women wearing scarves is on the beach! So True!! I remember last Spring – enjoying the warmer weather – and looking around at all the French still wearing scarves and it was probably 80 degrees! I love layering here – and it’s so easy when you think about it. The other place I see color is the new “colored” jeans and sometimes a brighter jacket or coat. Great post!


7 Design Mom September 17, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Glad you enjoyed the post, Jennifer! I’ve started wondering if I’ll keep my scarf habit when we move back to the States.


8 how2home September 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm

This is such a wonderful post! I agree, the French really knows how to layer beautiful pieces together. The grey cape looks beautiful!


9 SEC September 17, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Layering + my 6-year-old son = lots of lost items of clothing! But it works for me :)


10 Kim Senn September 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Great post! Living in San Francisco has truly developed my layering skills and I am never without an extra layer in my bag. I’ve just started adding scarves to the mix, and I completely agree that they’re the best way to add color and personality to an otherwise neutral mix of staples. (Especially on a budget!)


11 erin September 17, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I had to giggle at this post. I was hiking in the Bryce Canyon area of Utah last week, and spotted several French women hiking in layers and colorful scarves- in the blazing heat! They looked gorgeous, though.


12 Julie September 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Yes, love to layer and love love scarves….just not ones that cost nearly $400. I love that one pictured but holy moly!!


13 Design Mom September 17, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Hah! I hear you. That scarf is way out of my budget, but I liked the colors in the composition. : ) On a happier note, the pants are only $12! I bought two pairs — navy and camel.


14 Katie September 17, 2012 at 6:19 pm

Thanks so much for this! I will be studying abroad in Paris next semester, so this is perfect!


15 Grania September 18, 2012 at 12:30 am

Love your Post! And layering is all the thing here in Germany as well – probably crossed borders from France….I also like adding a short waistcoaty thingy to make it a bit smarter for the office and of course THE scarf! Also love your back to school fashion posts, as my youngest is an 11 year old fashion victim with ideas (layers!) of her own – totally unlike me as a kid…..


16 Beluka September 18, 2012 at 1:17 am

Great post! I wasn’t aware that not everybody layers! I am from (and live) in Galicia (northwest corner of Spain), where the weather is not the warm Andalousian kind people think of when hearing “Spain” :).
I love reusing spring dresses in the winter with long-sleeved tees, jackets, thick leggings and boots. If the neck is not scarfy enough, always a scarf! Also, I’ve always loved combining a cool tee with a plain basic white shirt underneath, sleeves rolled up, or just baggy tees over tight plain ones, plus some accesories this can be a killer look!


17 Design Mom September 18, 2012 at 4:04 am

I love your idea wearing spring dresses into the fall and winter by adding layers. So smart!


18 Carina September 18, 2012 at 9:13 am

Hey! I’m from Galicia, too!


19 Amanda September 18, 2012 at 4:12 am

I feel like I would get too hot with all these layers! I tend to get warm easily!


20 Kathryn September 18, 2012 at 4:37 am

I love layering, and scarves… I love the versatility of white, black, cream etc, none of which suit my colours, so a scarf makes it so easy to add some colour – even in summer! I read a great book about an Aussie girl moving to Paris – very interesting little bits of information (e.g. you don’t just throw anything on to pop down the shop… ). I love the combo you posted above, just wish we were going into winter, not summer now!


21 Caddy September 18, 2012 at 8:09 am

I’m a big fan of layering and wish I could do it more (I live in the tropics). I’m big on scarves too, such a versatile piece and great for when it’s both hot and cold out..


22 courtney September 18, 2012 at 8:46 am

I love layering, but I still need to feel free of too many layers, which I think is a thing:) Today, for instance, it is 55 and windy with the first hint of a chill in the air. I am wearing tights, boots, a dress and a cardigan, with a scarf. But I get hot, so I would never add a t-shirt under this, or a jacket over this, unless I was going outside with the cape or jacket.


23 Carina September 18, 2012 at 9:15 am

I love to layer, but I have to be super careful: I have an upper body figure and adding more layers to my top half makes me look like an ice cream cone. It’s so chic to layer, but it’s the trickiest thing to figure out how without adding bulk.


24 Carrie@NaturalMomsTalkRadio July 30, 2013 at 2:07 pm

YES! I was just about to ask this question. If you have a short neck and large boobs, wearing a scarf just makes you look clownish. I wish I could figure out how to do it. DesignMom, we need a scarf tutorial! I am LOVING these posts about France btw :-)


25 Karen September 18, 2012 at 9:26 am

I love the idea and look of scarves but when I wear them… it doesn’t seem to look good. Being busty, the scarf around the neck look adds to the volume on top. Plus, I don’t have a long neck. If I had my way I would wear scarves every day. I just don’t think it looks good on me. (Love a great cardi, though!)


26 Design Mom September 19, 2012 at 2:22 am

I’ll have to be more observant here and see how it’s done on different body types.

I wonder if it’s like hats. There was a time when every woman wore a hat every day. But these days, lots of women feel like they don’t look good in hats. And it’s partly because they’re not used to seeing themselves in a hat.

I think women here grow up wearing scarves, no matter their height or proportions, so they’re used to seeing themselves with that accessory.

Hmmm. It’s got me wondering now…


27 Carrie@NaturalMomsTalkRadio July 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Oops, I should’ve read down before commenting. ;-) Another thought however. I do love bringing a scarf along when I go somewhere with a nursing baby. I find that draping the scarf around my neck, I can use the ends to hide the business areas, and it doesn’t scream “I’m nursing under here!!!” like a nursing cover does.


28 hyzen September 18, 2012 at 9:54 am

I have a hard time layering–it makes me feel bulky or messy/busy, particularly with things that are fluffy and shift around, like scarves. I usually only go as far as pants, a tank or tee, and cardigan or sweater. I think part of my problem is body shape–I am not at all overweight (by BMI, I am on the low end of normal), but I still manage to be fairly pear shaped, thin and small chested on top, with relatively wide hips and thickly muscled thighs from a lifetime of horseback riding. So, this skinny on the bottom and a lot of layers on top thing doesn’t feel great to me–more like it accentuates my wide spots and bulks up my slim ones. I wonder if there are other women out there with this kind of issue, and how they deal with layering. I do love the look, and I wish I could make it work for me.


29 Lola September 18, 2012 at 8:05 pm

I love layering…but being a Texan don’t always get much of an opportunity. Last winter was barely a winter! Scarves are gorgeous, but in Texas they are just for looks mostly. :)


30 Trish September 18, 2012 at 10:30 pm

I know I am late to the party with this comment but here goes. Love this look but I never know what to do with the scarf. How to tie it etc. Would love to see a post about how to wear a scarf. I tend to put it on and then take it off again. Help.


31 Design Mom September 19, 2012 at 2:17 am

I think it would be fun to have one of my French friends model a few different ways she ties and wears a scarf. It could be a little series!


32 Sol September 20, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Yes please do this. I do wear them here in the uk. but a little french pizzazz would be very gratefully accepted in to my wardrobe


33 Trish September 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Yes yes yes. Great idea. I agree with Sol. I would love to see this. On a side note, I have been thinking about this post as i get dressed lately and decided to just go for it. I have gotten many complements on the scarfs I out on. Who knows, maybe it will catch on in Central Illinois.


34 Anneliese September 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Love the layering! I think part of the reason I don’t layer as much is that I’m in a community that is set up for more driving than walking . So I’m from the home (comfortably heated or cooled) to the car (heated or cooled) to some other building. When I went to school outside of Boston I loved the more pedestrian culture and layering was more practical. Now it seems I just throw on a heavy coat to ease the transition from home to cold car and go! On the scarf note, my mother wore them often and loved them and used to try and suggest them to me when I was college aged and I would have nothing of it! Now I wear them a lot. It started with my pregnancies when I felt the urge to accessorize and draw some attention away from my belly. Now I just feel like it’s fun and a bit more polished than going without. But I typically do a knitted or crocheted scarf…


35 RJS November 7, 2012 at 5:02 pm

I love layering. Especially, cozy cashmere cowls. Although it takes awhile to unpeel my luscious layers – it’s worth it!


36 Dasnia Gema January 20, 2013 at 11:30 am

Love Layering and it can be a lot of fun and creative process once you get the hang of it, and your posts makes it easy to learn just how to do that! Thank you for sharing Gabrielle, great post! I will be sharing your post for sure!!


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