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The French Idea of Fashion
It's no surprise that some of the most famous fashion designers are from France. The French are known for their sense of style, but there are also many fashion myths surrounding the French. The stereotype of striped shirts and berets is, of course, not a reality!
The French have a different view of fashion from many Americans. In the United States, fashion is seen as a personal choice and we often think, "Anything goes!" In France, however, society has stronger ideas about what is and is not appropriate to wear based on the situation. It isn't uncommon for a French person to comment on what you're wearing, such as "Flip flops should only be worn at the beach" or "You should have worn a scarf today." It may seem rude, but they're just helping you understand the French mindset.
Another major difference between American and French fashion is important for college students. While college campuses are full of girls in leggings, sweatpants, or yoga pants and guys in hoodies, that sort of casual loungewear isn't worn in public. Even if you're just running to the corner boulangerie for a baguette, it's important that you're fully dressed in "real" clothes or you may get some strange looks!
The French also tend to wear more clothing than Americans. Once the sun comes out and the temperature hits 60, US campuses are often full of students sunbathing. In France, it's not uncommon to see people wearing sweaters and scarves even during the summer months. It's unlikely that you'll see women in strappy tank tops or dresses or men in shorts, unless you're at the beach.
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So What Should I Pack?
Whether you're going to France for a week or a semester, packing everything you'll need into a suitcase or two is tricky. Fortunately, it's easy to follow French fashion trends and pack relatively light. First, stick to neutral colors - black, brown, beige, gray - and pick classic pieces, like nice pants or skirts, simple dresses, cardigan or pullover sweaters, and collared shirts. Jeans are also common with French college student, but stick with darker washes and slim or skinny fits. Packing basics with dark or neutral colors will this allow you to mix and match pieces easily, but the neutral colors will help you blend in. The French tend to shy away from bright colors and patterns. While you can obviously wear whatever you'd like, sticking to black or gray will make you look automatically more French, while hot pink and bright blue can instantly label you as an American.
If you feel like a semester of black is going to be too depressing, don't worry! You can jazz up your outfits with some accessories. The French LOVE scarves, so you can pick up a few upon your arrival and easily tie outfits together. Earrings and necklaces are also easy ways to dress up an outfit, and they fit nicely into a suitcase.
You can't forget about the right shoes when packing your suitcase. One important thing to remember is that tennis shoes and athletic shoes are worn only when working out in France. Wearing sneakers, especially white ones, will instantly label you as a tourist. The one exception to this Converse All-Stars, which are quite popular with college students. For girls, a pair of boots will serve you well, as they'll go with skinny pants and dresses.
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An American in Paris
In the end, what you wear in France is entirely up to you. If your goal is to assimilate as much as possible, wearing what college students in France wear is a great way to start. Start by packing the basics, and you can always buy some clothes in France.
Author's own experience.
Backpack France. "Dress and Customs." http://www.backpackfrance.com/ask_bp_for/general_BPs_guide/dress_and_customs.asp
Paris Escapes. "What to Wear in Paris, France." http://www.parisescapes.com/paris_wear.html