According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average US consumer spent $1786 on clothes last year (women spent twice that, the report states), and $100 on bras and underwear. Meanwhile, the Fédération française du prêt-à-porter féminin reports the average French woman spends $858.72 annually on clothing and accessories, plus 130€ in lingerie. What accounts for the difference?
Shopping isn't yet recreational in France. Generally speaking, Parisians shop when they need something, simple as that. The concept of "retail therapy" is largely nonexistent- no Cher drowning sorrows in Dior after failing the driver's test, no Carrie Bradshaw maxing out credit cards while frustrated with Mr. Big (stabbing in the dark here, I never watched the show). Parisians also seem to put less stock in runway trends than Americans do. Perhaps, like towel warmers, Fashion Week doesn't carry much mystique since everybody's used to it. French women trust their own opinions more. When they find something that looks good on them, they're often faithful to that style or brand. Tant que ça marche on ne touche à rien.
Americans, on the other hand, tend to own more specific-use clothes. They collect little black dresses like Beanie Babies, and buy a different pair of shoes for each outfit. I read an interesting 1968 study conducted at Oregon State University surveying 283 sophomore and junior women. The respondents owned an average of 155 items of clothing, and thought the total cost of an adequate wardrobe should be $1708.73. In 1968!
When I was little, my mom found a vintage copy of Genevieve Antoine Dariaux's Elegance, a then out-of-print manual for "every woman who wants to be well and properly dressed on all occasions." The book had a major influence on my clothing tastes, and is the reason I dress like a middle-aged woman from 1964 today. Inside, Dariaux outlines a budget for the Parisian's basic minimum wardrobe.
1964 price (USD)
Adjusted for inflation* (USD)
|1 skirt (color)||15||112.99|
|1 skirt (black)||15||112.99|
|2 cotton skirts||20||150.66|
|2 pairs shoes||16||120.52|
|2 pairs sandals||10||75.33|
|1 pair of slacks||8||60.26|
|1 pair of shorts||5||37.66|
|2 cotton tops||7||52.73|
|2 wool sweaters||12||90.39|
|1 silk sweater||10||75.33|
|3 pairs of gloves||9||67.79|
|1 straw handbag||5||37.66|
|1 pearl necklace||5||37.66|
*2014 rates calculated via Consumer Price Index statistics and Historical Statistics of the United States (USGPO, 1975)
Dariaux advises spending $21 a month, or $1898 a year, "Not counting stockings and lingerie- assuming everything you own was lost in a fire, and that you are as bare as a newborn babe!" She deliberately excludes dresses from the budget, because "it is very difficult to find a really chic dress that is well-made in a good material for less than $40 ($301.31) or so." The book later says women with tiny budgets shouldn't spend money on sweets. Yesterday, I realized the vegan cake I eat in one sitting almost weekly has 70 grams of fat in it and is meant to be split amongst six people. Nevertheless, I learned a few things from Dariaux's guidelines.
First, spend the most on what lasts the longest and constitutes the foundation of your wardrobe. In Paris, that's usually a coat and good shoes, depending on lifestyle. Are you an avid runner? Invest in track pants and sports bras. Do you live in Bali? I guess you'll buy a lot of flip-flops. Conversely, you can get away with spending less on sandals and shorts if you only wear them a few weeks a year.
Second, "You must take the time and the trouble to shop around for the ideal bag and the perfect dress in a number of different stores and not be satisfied to dash out one Saturday afternoon at the height of rush hour to buy the first article you lay your hands on. The less elastic your budget, the less you can afford to make a mistake," Dariaux writes. I keep saying a cohesive minimal wardrobe doesn't take a lot of time. I also said Kelly Rowland would have more staying power than Beyonce, so you should probably stop reading now. Building the perfect wardrobe takes a significant time investment at the outset, though it gets easier the longer you stick with it. Shopping on a budget means resisting trends, prints, and colors that date a wardrobe or grow tiresome. This rules out most Isabel Marant.
In the early 1900s, a journalist made this calculation of expenses in a Paris daily:
"The clever woman decides to appear, and succeeds in appearing, to spend more than she has. It is a difficult problem to solve, and one which takes nearly all her time and much diplomacy. The skillful woman makes use of everything and allows nothing to be wasted. Last year's ball-dress makes a beautiful underskirt for this year. All the laces and furs of the family are used by her. New purchases take long consideration. She cannot afford to buy anything of extravagant style, which quickly goes out of fashion. But she buys every two or three years a good piece which always looks it value. For the same reason she does not affect bright colors which 'date.' If her dress is black, or of dark color, it is not noticed.
"As she is obliged to simplify all her wardrobe, she cannot afford many fanciful objects. One specimen of each must serve. The clever woman knows, however, she cannot economize on lingerie, as nothing will look well over ill-fitting stuff, and does not hesitate to go to the best in Paris. Same applies to the shoemaker. Economies in shoes are false economies. If a woman attends to these details, she always looks well. As for other ornaments, she never misses them. This woman’s expenditure may be, on an average, 1800 or 2000 francs. To keep within this sum, she must, in some years, make special outlays, and economize on others- her linen, for example, will last three or four years; or another year she will buy a good coat or have her jewels reset. The year after, she has bought a number of gowns and will make up for it by special economies. In Paris, the number of these resourceful women is legion, aided by a sort of genius peculiar to Parisiennes."
Now that you have a complete historical and sociological picture of Parisian clothing budgets, head over to Dress like a parisian and see how to spend your centime. Most of the women I know get clothes at centres commerciaux and buy designer accessories, either new or at depot-ventes- more the former than the latter. As my friend Ann-Sofie explained, "I don't like depot-ventes, because I know somebody else has worn them first, and I don't know what they did in them!"