Budgeting Like a Parisian

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)15112.99
1 skirt (black)15112.99
1 coat 40301.31
1 suit 50376.64
2 cotton skirts20150.66
2 blouses1075.33
2 pairs shoes 16120.52
2 pairs sandals1075.33
1 pair of slacks 860.26
1 pair of shorts 537.66
2 cotton tops 752.73
2 wool sweaters1290.39
1 silk sweater1075.33
3 pairs of gloves967.79
1 handbag 15112.99
1 straw handbag 537.66
1 pearl necklace537.66


*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!"

Paris to Go


  1. I agree tat it takes a great deal of effort and conscious thought to build an effortless wardrobe. With that same logic, its often the "no makeup" looks that take the most makeup.

    1. That's a great point! Yeah, you have to acquire the pieces bit by bit gradually so everything coordinates. The actual buy may take a short amount of time but the acquisition could take years.

  2. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing the history and perspective.

    By the way, there is a numerical error in your column of inflation adjusted costs, at the Gloves category. That throws off your total wardrobe budget by quite a bit. By rough calculation I believe the total should be closer to $2,000.

    Or is that, perhaps, an error from the book itself?

    Also, I'm not clear whether these are 1975 inflation adjusted prices, as the footnote suggests, or if they are current.

    If they are for 1975, it would be useful and fun to see what those current prices would be, using an inflation calculator like this one: http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl?cost1=1&year1=1964&year2=2015, which suggests overall prices in the US are about 7 1/2 times greater today than in 1964, from the point of view of the consumer price index (CPI).

    I don't know how much more or less clothing costs may have increased than the general consumer price index.

    If the CPI is 7 1/2 times what it was in 1964, and if clothing costs have inflated at about the rate of the overall index, that small wardrobe would be about $1900 today. That seems low, if assuming that the quality of the items is fairly high (mostly natural fibers, well manufactured, not fast-fashion but not designer-level quality).

    Anyway, this was a really fun read. Thanks.

    1. Oops! Nope, that's my error. It is supposed to be $1898.24, not over 8000, thank you! I wrote it in the paragraph underneath but not in the chart, ugh. I need to proof-read.

      The inflation prices are actually for 2014 because the consumer price index hasn't published the 2015 rates yet so I didn't know how to calculate it. I used a historical statistics book published in 1975, it had the rates for 1964, sorry it's so confusing. You're right, I plugged the total into the one you linked to just now and it would be $1937.28. Thanks for sharing that calculator!

      Actually that author is interesting because her personal wardrobe budget was similar, and she wasn't rich, and she always carried Hermes and Roberta di Camerino bags.

    2. My goodness, I just used that calculator again... the Oregon State University girls thought it was okay to spend the equivalent of $11,701.66 on clothes?

    3. That's incredibly strange. It's not an East Coast Ivy League school or other place where you might expect an upper level of income and luxury taste. It's Oregon State. I can only guess that these young women were used to having their parents pay for clothes, and didn't have a good sense of overall costs. It would be interesting to see how that study was conducted.

  3. Oh my goodness- i am LOVING this. I have read the reissued Elegance book and love it- even if it's a tad dated (no dangly earrings during the day?) Have you ever read anything by Marjorie Hillis? I have 2 of her books but the one you'd probably really like is "Orchids On Your Budget."
    Anyway, this is great great (convicting) fun. And who specifically is this: that author is interesting because her personal wardrobe budget was similar, and she wasn't rich, and she always carried Hermes and Roberta di Camerino bags.
    Sometimes I wonder if they're legit. Or if they're like Hollywood actresses who imply they keep their weight down by eating sensible meals and snacks and then we hear from former trainers that they worked out 4 hours a day...

    1. I'll look up Marjorie Hillis, I'm intrigued! The author of Elegance was the woman who always carried Hermes bags. You raise a good point though (I read Emily Ratajkowski never works out. If that's true, I hate everything). Still, I love Dariaux's style of writing and how harsh she is haha. I feel like her ideas may have been old-fashioned even for that day, but she had such conviction in them!

  4. Also, I'm curious. Do you think these figures are applicable to Parisian women/ the generally stylish European woman? I realize that they don't recreational shop as many Americans do, but I wonder if the figures aren't somewhat skewed by women in smaller, less fashion-conscious towns?
    As an aside, I find it hilarious that women at Oregon State were ever interested in building a wardrobe- much less one that cost over $11,000... Things have changed.
    Lastly, don't you wish people still said "you look well in that dress" rather than "you look good"? It just sounds so much nicer.

    1. I thought the numbers were definitely skewed, but it's possible they're not because Parisians have much lower salaries than American women. I know people much smarter, better educated and more qualified than me who make less than I did when I worked at a mall in the US. According to INSEE (http://www.insee.fr/en/) there are women in Paris making 21,000 a year, and only around 10% of Parisians have any buying power... maybe I'm misinterpreting the data.

      There is one Paris reporter who, when the report that women spent $858 annually came out, said she spent over $400 a month on clothes, and I definitely know people who do that too... even ones that make not much more than 21000 a year!

  5. Urgh, I just did some calculations the other day and on average over the last 3 months I spent about Aust $400 on clothes. They're all basics and I am building my wardrobe from scratch because I'm nearly 30 and dressing like I'm 16 still, so I know in the long run it'll balance but it still makes me cringe!

    1. That doesn't sound bad at all, it sounds very reasonable! What process are you using to build your wardrobe from scratch? Like what pieces are you buying first? You don't have to answer I'm just curious haha. Some asked me to write a post about how to build a wardrobe and I don't even know where to start.

    2. Oh, oh, I think I can help! Funnily enough all your wardrobe posts are what inspired me and help me find a very basic framework - here's the link to my ramblings: https://highlysuggestible.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/how-to-essential/
      And I suddenly realised that my typing was not accurate above - I spent an average of $400 per month over a 3 month period on clothes! Now that is wholly unreasonable. Again, I am on the come down now I actually have clothes. My go-to place is www.grana.com - I wrote about the brand as well. Ethical, true natural fibres, great quality, good price point.

  6. Oh I loved this post. I wear the same pair of ear-rings about 360 days of the year - large pearls hanging from gold hooks, and recently noticed that the gold was wearing thin on the small gold ring that holds the pearl. So, some maintenance is required and they are being fixed for AUD$125. Who knew that daily wear would cause this!

    A friend had a great method for always being well-shod by buying on a two year cycle. In the Summer she would buy a pair of good quality Italian sandals, and wear last years sandals at home, to do the groceries etc...In the Winter she would be wearing the good Italian shoes she bought the year before, for work and going out. The next year, the Summer sandals would do duty again, and a new pair of Winter shoes would be purchased. She maintained her shoes beautifully and had them seen to promptly if there was wear and tear.

    I am almost ready to give up on wearing cotton tee shirts as I find they do not last long no matter how carefully you look after them. I've become concerned about the environmental impact of that, not to mention the growing and processing of the cotton.


    1. That is a great method! And it's so nice that you maintain and repair your daily items instead of tossing them, especially considering everything that goes into gold production- you reminded me, I think I actually need to take my wedding ring in for some maintenance too. So thank you for that. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who had this issue with cotton tee shirts! The one I got at the thrift store recently already has holes in it. Granted, they are from cats' claws but still, it was a thick fabric and I thought it would be able to withstand some gentle kneading. I know some environmentalists who won't buy anything cotton for their house, and maybe own one pair of jeans because of how toxic the cotton production process is and how much water it takes.

  7. Omg I LOVE that chart !!! And the fact that this wardrobe only has 25 items.
    Am kind of a nerd for this type of vintage home economics / how to manuals too...

    1. Ooh, if you have any recommendations, I can't get enough of these vintage guides!

    2. I don't own any in particular, but google books offers a great range of old publications, downloadable for free (just search home economics or any search term that would relate). This summer I went to this roadside antique store in France with an awesome used book corner; they had a whole "Larousse domestique", like a dictionary for housewives, with focuses on how to make encaustic, how to decorate, etc. :)

    3. Thanks! I'll check out Larousse domestique, I love that stuff

  8. The journalists's calculation is from Le Figaro. It was quoted in a textbook of mine, albeit in French, but I recognized it immediately! Such interesting stuff.

    1. Thanks for identifying the paper, I read it in a book also and it didn't seem to cite the actual daily. I was wondering, though.

  9. 1. Thank you for the blog reco. I am loving her ways to wear all black. And how to look sexy. Very very well done.
    2. How strange. I read the book on elegance last week. And was quite enamoured by it. Its dated but still so relevant. Esply coz I am repulsed by the women around me who wear leggings as pants all day every day.
    3. Love this budget post. I am making mine and I can use all the help I can get. I am conflicted between having a small capsule or building a medium size closet with few high quality pieces coming in every season. The former is good for me and the planet. The later sounds exciting.
    4. Do you think its ever done ? a perfect closet achieved and done ?

    1. A medium size closet doesn't have to be bad for the environment! If it excites you maybe you should go for the medium sized one? Since you are already doing the capsules, do you find they are dissatisfying? The idea is to be happy with everything in your wardrobe, that way people don't consume as much fast fashion or unethical clothing, which, from your blog, isn't what you do anyway.

      And your leggings comment reminded me of Fran Leibovitz-

      I agree with basically everything she says here, especially about t-shirts not being peaches :)

      I think a perfect closet can be achieved for sure, but it's temporary. Tastes change and lifestyle and body shape aren't static. I thought I had the perfect closet, but then I lost weight and my life changed and just tailoring the old stuff wasn't working anymore. Hurriedly finding replacements is where I made missteps. Every time I'm at the point where I'm like, my wardrobe is perfect, it's finished, I don't need anything else, something happens- like something gets ruined or stolen- and I eat my words!

    2. Hi Ariana,

      I have a question, off topic maybe. Would you link your weight loss to your diet? I personally have found that with eating right for your body, you work with your body, not fighting it, and it thanks you with being more streamined and effevtive. Would you say the same?

      That being said, still my body hates me sometimes. I have a picky gut. Any tips would be great. For me, gluten, sugar, milk are not my friends, but I can't help but wondering if something else is off to sometimes.

      Thank you for being my guide everyday!

    3. Hi Emma! You are so sweet. Definitely eating vegan contributed to weight loss. When I first moved to Paris, all the walking helped me shed weight, but eating vegan just made me lose a lot more, I had to take everything in- including my jeans- but it kept coming off, so now many of my clothes are a little big :( I think also I am shrinking. Being Asian, this is the age when most women in my family start to lose a few inches off their bones... I get a lot of calcium but my doctor still says I'm shorter than the last time I visited!

      Do you eat soy perhaps? I noticed soy and corn make me horribly sick, almost as bad as gluten. I also cannot eat certain preservatives, most processed foods just make me feel sick, though this could be psychological. I hope you feel better soon!

  10. Hi Ariana. Thank you for your sweat answer, as allways. My goal is not to lose weight (with 48 kg for 161 cm I am quite ok, no need to lose any), bur trying to be as healthy as possible. Trying to go vegan will be one of my goals, if I can get a good agreement with my man.

    Thank you for your recomendation on the soy and corn, will take it into account. I have a meeting with my osteopath this weekend and try to implement this together with her.

    Thank you thank you thank you

  11. This is a fascinating post. I'm making my way through the university study now.

    I wonder about the inflation numbers--as I understand it, while costs in general have risen (of course), clothing costs have risen less. I know that people are thought to allocate a much lower percentage of their spending on clothing now than in the past. (From a BLS report: "In 1901, the average U.S. household allocated 14.0 percent of total spending for apparel, while households in New York City allocated 13.0 percent on average, and households in Boston, 14.4 percent. By 2002–03, spending shares for clothing had decreased to 4.2 percent in the country as a whole, 5.2 percent in New York City, and 3.9
    percent in Boston.") So maybe the university students' numbers aren't really all that crazy. I'd love to see clothing-specific inflation numbers but I don't know if they are available.

    1. I would love to see those too, if you find the clothing-specific numbers please share :) I was surprised to read that clothing accounts for only 3.5% percent of a family's average expenditures. Did you see this article?


      Very interesting!

  12. This is SO fascinating! I have been broke up with shopping as a past-time a little over a year ago, and it has been wonderful. I especially love what you said about women trusting their own judgement over what the fashion industry (businesses) are trying to tell them. Excellent write up!

    1. Thank you so much Andrea! I've read your blog before and your pictures are wonderful and your outfits are so cute :) Sorry I didn't pipe up before, I will in future posts!

  13. Late to the party on this, as I'm catching up on old blog posts. I love Dariaux's Elegance - I re-read it at least once a year. I love old home economics and etiquette manuals. This was a great post!

    1. So nice to meet a fellow Ohioan with similar interests :) I feel like Elegance is still a timeless book. All the principles still apply, with just a few tweaks to the details...

  14. I've been paring down my wardrobe for the past year and still have more than I need, so I recently made a list of EVERYTHING I own and am putting a tick mark next to it each time I wear it. I'm hoping that over the next 6 months it will give me a good indication of what my habits are!