What I Learned from the Five Piece French Wardrobe Experiment

The following is a guest post from Erin DePew (see her two previous guest posts HERE and HERE).  Erin is a web developer and graphic designer who happens to love shoes almost as much as “hackathons.”  She also enjoys musing on minimalism, client-side scripting, and the pursuit of the perfect pumps.

If you have an idea for a guest post on “Recovering Shopaholic,” please connect with me to share your thoughts.

I love reading about style challenges. I think that they can be a great way to push us outside of our stylistic comfort zones and reveal a lot about our relationship with our wardrobes. While I have really enjoyed reading about Debbie’s experience with Project 333, I decided that the “Five Piece French Wardrobe” was a little more my speed.

Five Piece French Wardrobe Challenge

Project 333 not for you?  Try the “Five Piece French Wardrobe”!

Basically, the Five Piece French Wardrobe (or FPFW for short) is an experiment where you are allowed to buy as many classic pieces and reasonably priced accessories as you want, but you can only buy five trendy or statement pieces per fashion season (fall/winter and spring/summer).

The Five Piece French Wardrobe Rules

The rules are simple:

  1. Fabric and quality is more important than quantity.
  2. Basics don’t count (basic tees are always allowed).
  3. Accessories don’t count, except if they cost a lot more than usual.
  4. Socks and underwear don’t count; the rest does.
  5. Shoes do count.

If you are interested in a more detailed explanation, I enjoyed reading through this Reddit thread.

As with any wardrobe experiment, there are pros and cons. I really enjoyed the process and will continue to participate for another year, but I can see how this experiment would not be a good fit for some people.

The “Cons” of the Five Piece French Wardrobe

So let’s get the cons out of the way first, shall we?

Con #1 – It requires a good foundation of basics.

This is definitely not a challenge I would recommend for people who are just starting to build a wardrobe. The expectation is that the person already has a solid foundation of basics, and that they just want to add a little something to stay current and replace their basics as they wear out. If I didn’t already have a good selection of classic pieces, this experiment would have quickly become incredibly frustrating, since I wouldn’t have anything to pair with my trendy pieces – or I would be spending more money than I’m comfortable with on updating my basics during the challenge.

Con #2 – It requires a defined sense of style and limits experimentation.

While this is a major drawback for some people, this is actually one of the reasons why I liked this experiment. I like reading magazines, going through my Pinterest, browsing stores, and then sitting down at the beginning of each season and picking my five “must-haves.” However, I love structure and checking off lists, and I already have a very defined sense of style, so I never felt like I was missing out. If you’re still defining your style or are a person who likes to try out lots of different trends, this experiment might feel too limiting.

Con #3 – The rules are very vague.

The other drawback is that this experiment requires a lot of self-discipline. If you are adept at justifying purchases to yourself, the fact that classics and accessories get a free pass might be an issue. It’s amazing what you can justify as a classic or an accessory when you’re out shopping with friends and you just really want to buy something. I definitely had to restrain myself from binging on scarves at about month three.

Con #4 – It might be boring for fashion lovers.

This complaint is similar to the lack of experimentation. If you’re someone who uses fashion as a form of self-expression, you might find this style of dressing very boring, unless you get really creative with your definition of “classic.” I personally have a very basic style, and I’m perfectly happy in jeans, button-downs, and jersey dresses day after day. But for all of my lovely “maximalist” ladies, the focus on traditional classics and limiting yourself to only five trendy pieces could become stifling. On the other hand, perhaps it would be a good palate cleanser to try out this experiment for a season or two if you are on the trendier side.

The Benefits of the FPFW Challenge

Overall, I really liked the Five Piece French Wardrobe process, and it does have some great benefits:

Benefit #1 – It naturally creates a trend-proof closet.

While some might find the focus on classics boring, this challenge does help people move away from a trend-based closet toward a classic wardrobe that doesn’t need to be replaced every season. I’m a huge fan of anything that allows me to shop less and still look stylish. Also, for us classic gals, it pushes us to spend money on things that aren’t another navy crewneck sweater or pair of black skinny jeans. I always feel a little guilty buying something that’s not a classic, so this experiment allowed me to buy a few trendy things guilt-free, even if my idea of “trendy” is a pair of Swedish Hasbeens.

Benefit #2 – It allows splurges on statement pieces and classics.

I might be a little biased here, since this is how I naturally shop, but I like to spend my money on classics and every once in a while on a statement piece. I expect to wear my statement pieces into the ground that given season and my classics for quite a few years. This wardrobe challenge definitely pushes people into that type of budgeting, and if you were spending a large amount of money on trendy pieces before, you will find that you have a lot of cash left over to update your basics (or even sock away into your savings!).

Benefit #3 – The guidelines are adaptable.

If you check out other people’s FPFW experiments, you will see that this challenge is easily adapted for a wide range of situations. It can fit almost any type of budget, lifestyle, and personal style. You can also make the rules as stringent (or not) as you want. For example, I disagreed with the list of suggested basics or the idea that your pieces couldn’t be discounted or second-hand, so I just adapted it to my lifestyle and needs. For certain personality types, the flexibility and vague rules are an issue, but for others, it’s a huge positive.

The Bottom Line – It’s Worth a Try!

So if you’re past the discovery stage of personal style, have a solid foundation of basics, like restrictions and planning, and have an already pretty classic style, I would say this is a great experiment to try. And if you don’t fit any of those criteria, I would still say it’s worth a try. The process might grow on you after a season or two. Even if you decide to go back to your old method of shopping, you will definitely learn something about yourself and your relationship with clothing, which is the whole point of taking on these challenges.

An Example – My Five Piece French Wardrobe

While of course your FPFW might look much different than mine, I thought it would be helpful to show what I purchased over the past year.

Fall/Winter FPFW Purchases

These were the three Fall/Winter FPFW Purchases I made.

Spring/Summer FPFW Purchases

I made these four purchases for my Spring/Summer Five Piece French Wardrobe. 

As you can see, my pieces are on the trendier side and are easily mixed in with my basics to update my outfits. I also learned during this experiment that I have a serious weakness for shoes, but that’s neither here nor there.

While I consider these pieces to be trendy, everyone’s style is different, so some of you might consider these your basics! Another note is that while this is the five piece French wardrobe experiment, I never did complete either of my lists, and I don’t consider that a bad thing. Part of the experiment is learning to value quality over quantity, and to never settle for less. Sometimes I just never found that perfect piece and that’s okay.


26 thoughts on “What I Learned from the Five Piece French Wardrobe Experiment

  1. Oh, this is just what I need! I am at the point that I feel the bones of my wardrobe are pretty well in place, but I am still refining it. This is a great framework for keeping my wardrobe fresh and current while still observing some limits.

    Reviewing my recent purchases, I’ve made three so far for fall that I would count in the five: an ivory cable-knit sweater, a navy waxed cotton field jacket, and a pair of army-green waterproof suede booties. I would like to get a really nice pair of medium-blue jeans (I think I would count these even though they’re maybe a “basic” because I do want to splurge on a higher-end brand). That leaves one spot open just in case, perfect!

  2. Hi Debbie. I live in France. It’s a real myth that french women have perfect wardrobes. They are not all stylishly dressed (In my opinion Italian women are chic-er.)
    HOWEVER, french women do not go out of the house dressed in tracksuits and trainers. They are never sloppy. They dress and put on makeup. Their hair is done.
    -They tend to have a uniform “look” and clothes are more fitted and therefore not sloppy looking.
    -They wear neutral tones – taupe, navy, grey and black. They don’t wear a lot of color and they don’t wear garish prints. Their clothing is more subdued and simple lines.
    -They accessorize with bags, shoes and jewellery. Pretty ballerina flats, suede loafers, silver bracelets. They don’t wear garish jewellery either. They wear scarves all the time.
    -They have their hair done, regularly.

    We don’t have huge wardrobe spaces as we live in much smaller apartments and houses. We also don’t have the enormous shopping malls. Shopping is not such a frenzy. You can see this at Christmas time when people are shopping – they are never overloaded with bags and bags of stuff!
    Finally french women are not overweight and are generally petite in body structure. You rarely see overweight women or men. They are moderate in their habits.

    • Reading through the Reddit thread and some others, it seems like the idea here is more about the process of shopping than the overall aesthetic you are working towards. That makes sense too, given that this is a blog about shopping less. I found this in the Reddit thread linked in the post:

      Just because it’s called the French Wardrobe philosophy doesn’t mean you have to emulate the “French girl style”. At its core, this is about how to buy things, not what to buy. Ignore all those lists that require you to have the perfect black cigarette pant and trench if that’s not your thing.

  3. Just one more thing: you don’t see a lot of “radical” looks. No radical shaved haircuts, or overly pierced faces and bodies or overly tattoed. This is something I notice straight away when I go to other countries. It also means that the french (and italian) look is calm and easy on the eye and just looks overall chic-er.

  4. @Cara Glad you like it, and those sound like great buys! I’m putting together my list for the fall/winter and I’m thinking about including a cream colored sweater too!

    @Carolyn I agree with Cara, my impression was that this wasn’t so much about French style but about the idea of how French women shop (in theory). Obviously both French style and shopping M.O. are very stereotyped and not everyone aspires to look like la Parisienne, but it makes for a catchy name and sells the experiment well.
    Also from what I’ve seen this project works for all sorts of different styles and is more about updating your wardrobe mindfully.

    • Erin, these are just observations of how the french dress for an added perspective to the overall topic of french wardrobes. I also love the 5 piece French Wardrobe Philosophy and it is a concept of shopping that I aim to be better at. I know my french friends are more mindful in the way they shop because they dress in a certain (personal) style and don’t steer from that. So whether their scarf comes from Hermès or H&M, they are an essential part of the seasonal wardrobe. They are also mindful about other things – what they eat, makeup, hair – which is part of their overall package.

    • I apologize for monopolizing this post – I am procrastinating big time today! But I have a follow-up question, if you don’t mind. Do you ever find that you get off-balance by sticking to the same number of items per season? I am thinking in particular about how fall/winter clothing tends to be sturdier than spring/summer stuff. I might buy a winter coat that lasts close to a decade, while I’ll be lucky to get two summers out of a sundress. Do you ever find that your wardrobe gets too heavily tilted towards fall/winter stuff or does it all work itself out?

      • My fall/winter wardrobe is always larger, but I always blame it on the fact that I live close to canada and experience temps from 100f to -20f and because I run cold and love to layer. But you’re right- my winter/fall clothing are thicker and last longer too.

      • Cara, that’s actually a great question!
        I’ve only done this experiment for a year, so I’m not sure. Hopefully other people can chime in with their experience!

        Also, I’m up in New York and tend to run cold, so I appreciate a little more variety in my cold-weather gear since I wear it for nine months of the year.

  5. These 5 “rules” are great guidelines. I’d add a 6th — great fit is very important. this means embracing your body shape and finding a good tailor (or developing excellent sewing skills) to make sure that all of your clothes fit as well as possible.

    • @Dottie, completely agree! Bad fit can make even expensive clothing look cheap (and good fit can make cheap clothing look like a million bucks).

  6. I want to employ a version of the 5-piece wardrobe next year: only 5 new items per season. It will make me be very careful on what I bring in, and replacement items count so I’ll have to be dilligent in keeping on track and evaluating my true needs. I’ll be able to spend more on an item if I want– finally I can contemplate items that were out of my reach before because of the sheer qty of the things I bought, like a cashmere sweater or silk blouse. I’m so excited about this that I’m preparing for this now.

    • I really look forward to reading how this method works for you next year, Meli. I know you’ve really worked hard to pare down your wardrobe this year and to shop strategically to curate a workable wardrobe, so I think you’re ready for the FPFW challenge. I hope you’ll write about your process on your blog and you’re welcome to do a guest post here, too, to share how it’s going for you.

      • Thanks Debbie! Thank you for suggesting, I’d love to do a couple posts about it. I’m in the middle of working out a plan right now for how I’m going to accomplish this 🙂 It’s true though, that if I did not have a good foundation wardrobe (partially or mostly thanks to this year’s shopping I might add, as I did not have a great foundation) I would not be able to do this challenge.

  7. I like these ideas in theory. I notice they invariably are neutral wardrobes. I know they say it can fit for all styles but really I think the leaning is toward both neutral and classic, both of which are not exactly cornerstones of my own style. It is interesting to watch. I might find the basics loophole a bit too vague, also.
    Lastly, I’m not sure I want everything to be the best I can afford. I like having a few things that I know are practically disposable so I don’t worry about ruining them. In my own plan I allot for a couple of these $10 items just for fun. Having to weigh every last purchase so carefully takes some of the fun out of it for me. I find I grab my $8 dress quite often while the silk DVF has very careful parameters around which I’ll wear it. To each their own, of course!

    • I should add I do like the idea of a couple big ticket, quality, well thought items each season. I just think there can be a balance alongside some more fast fashion type things too. (I did buy $300 leather pants after all this year. But the same month I also bought an $8 cowl tank top.) Again, to each their own.

    • I agree with you, Mo. This system seems best suited to a style of neutral basics + a few trendier/statement pieces (or at least, I have never seen anyone with a radically different style than that post about using the system). And neither of those elements really appeals to me.

      I do very much like the idea of considering what handful of pieces each season would add the most to my wardrobe. And I like the idea of having a wardrobe that could function that way (that is, a wardrobe that would be quite functional overall, and just need a handful of updates/replacements each season).

      • I have a friend whose personal style is very edgy, and she buys only a few carefully chosen items each season. Theses can range dramatically in price, but everything she buys “goes” with what she already owns. Some of her clothing seems a bit discordant but in a well planned way — it’s hard to describe — and she always looks sensational. The key for her is to invest in a few key pieces that form the foundation for her look and then build on this. She shops all over and some of her clothing is not of great quality but it appears that these kind of pieces have a very short shelf life in her closet. I, on the other hand, rely on “classically feminine: clothing that last for years and years. I’m not sure I could replicate my friend’s edgy look and I think she’d hate to wear classically styled gray trousers and a white blouse — too predictable for her. But we use similar wardrobe-building techniques.

  8. Erin, thank you so much for this excellent guest post! I really enjoyed learning about the “Five Piece French Wardrobe” challenge and I know my readers found it interesting as well. I love that there are so many different ways we can approach building and maintaining a wardrobe that works well for our individual lives and needs. While this challenge – and all approaches – isn’t for everyone, I’m sure it really resonated with some who read this post. If anyone reading this opts to give it a try, I’d love to read about your experience down the line.

    I think we can all benefit by thinking more deeply about the pieces we buy and how they fit in with what we already have and with our lives and activities. I know I often bought too haphazardly and ended up with a disjointed wardrobe that didn’t really meet my needs. As a result, I’m having to re-build things now and let go of all of the excess stuff that I no longer love and wear (or maybe never did). I can see doing the FPFW challenge or a variation thereof a bit down the line once my wardrobe is in better order. I definitely have the vision of having a well-functioning wardrobe and just adding a small number of strategic purchases each season, whether it be to replace things that don’t work for me or add some trendy pieces to modernize things a bit.

    I loved seeing the pieces you bought over the past year, as that helps to drive the point home further. I can see that you put a lot of thought into what you bought and I can visualize how the pieces work together and with other items you possibly own. Thanks again for writing this post – another excellent guest post. You never disappoint!

  9. I want to thank you for this post. While I am not sure if this would be a better route for me until I try it, I do feel that it is a better fit for me than project 333. I really like the idea that it encourages quality pieces when we do make a purchase as I feel it is important to choose quality over quantity. I think I am also biased because I do tend to lean towards classic with a little edge when I choose clothing to fit my style. I had never heard of this method until now.

    • You’re welcome, Brittany! I’m glad that Erin presented this post idea to me and I was very happy to have her share her ideas here on the blog. I know that Project 333 isn’t for everyone, so I was glad to have another alternative presented here. I hadn’t heard of the “Five Piece French Wardrobe” until recently, but I like it. I can see how it could be a good option for many people and I hope it works well for you!

      • I am indeed going to try it. Immediately. 🙂 Will be linking a blog post to this post very soon. Thank you for such an informative post. I think this is truly something that will work for me.

  10. I adore learning about French based wardrobes, so this post is right up my alley! I really am attracted to the idea that shop less often, own less items, and get more use out of what I do own.

    • I know you’re doing a French wardrobe challenge right now, Lisa, and I’m enjoying reading about it. I think I might do better starting with your type of challenge than the one Erin wrote about, but I think they both can be very valuable. I love that there are many ways we can push ourselves with our wardrobes and learn and grow in the process. I look forward to reading your next installment!

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