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July 24, 2008

Dressed for anything

Anyone who knows Norwegian culture, knows that the social norms are very different in the woods and mountains than they are in the cities. Norwegian skiers and hikers greet and even smalltalk with strangers, but this will never happen on an Oslo street (unless the Norwegians are drunk). The rules of fashion vary too. One of my first blog posts ever was about the "hytte look". After spending a weekend in the woods with my new college class, I wrote about the way Norwegians dress when they head up to mountain cottages. There is an unspoken rule that even if the only "hiking" you do is walking for half an hour on an asphalt road, you should still put on your "hiking outfit" (Like this or this or this, or maybe something like this). 

After a semester with Americans in Paris, and recently entertaining an American Eurail tourist for a long weekend, I've had some interesting Europe vs. US fashion conversations. During one of these conversations, I realized that when Norwegians leave Oslo and head up into the woods, they become Americans - friendly, but badly dressed.

Despite the many "dress like a European" tips in American travel books and websites (an example), I can usually spot the Americans on any European city street. Not only are travellers in general easily recognizable with their philosophy of "in order to be ready for anything on this trip, I must always dress as if I were about to climb Mount Everest, even if I'm just walking down a Norwegian street".  But as my American backpacker friend explained, they don't want to overdress, because then it looks like they care too much.

"So I should make an effort to dress down so that Americans won't think I'm making an effort?" I ask. Maybe I'm too much of a European city girl, but to me, that doesn't make sense. 

There are sensible rules for what to wear in more or less extreme conditions. But often the most important reason for wearing hiking clothes or “travelling” clothes is to show the others that you are above such silly things as fashion, that all you care about is practical matters, and that you are now leaving your superficial, fashion-conscious city life behind and returning to nature. And we all know that high-tech windproof jackets are much more natural than, say, cashmere sweaters.

Coco Chanel once said: "I don't understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little - if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that's the day she has a date with destiny. And it's best to be as pretty as possible for destiny." When I think of dressing so that I'm ready for anything, I have something more Chanel-ish in mind. She also said: "Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury." So I never buy anything uncomfortable, and that includes never buying anything I think is ugly.

I've wanted to read a chapter of Almost French to both this backpacker and many of the other people who think I "try too hard". Almost French is a highly recommended book about an Australian girl who visits a man (Frédéric) in Paris, and decides to stay with him there. Continue reading for a short version of this chapter, which explains the Paris approach to dressing.

Perhaps my most revealing lesson in French dress standards occurs one Saturday morning soon after moving to Paris. Rushing to the bakery to get a baguette and croissants, I chuck on an old, shapeless jumper and my warmup pants, which I'd rediscovered at the bottom of a wardrobe when we were packing up our place at Levallois. Catching sight of me, Frédéric looks appalled.

"Warmup pants?" He's never seen me wearing them before.

"What's wrong with that? I'm only going to the bakery."

There is a second's pause. Frédéric's eyes implore me. Finally, he manages to speak.

"But it's not nice for the baker!"


Paris fashion is not about blindly following trends irrespective of whether or not they suit your body shape. It's no coincidence that movements like punk and grunge never really took off here. How unattractive. The French don't dress to make political statements. (...) The essence of French style can be summed up in two words, which linked together are loaded with meaning: bon goût. Good taste.


It isn't until I interview the fashion designer Inès de la Fressange that I truly understand Frédéric's abhorrence of warmup pants.


"Do you find that it's, you know, an effort trying to look good all the time?"


"To stay the whole day neat and impeccable is much more comfortable than looking like you're in your pajamas. You see, these women with tight leggings and huge sweaters, they imagine that because they are a little round it's better if they wear something big. But they just look worse. It is much more comfortable to wear a jacket that is well cut in a nice fabric than it is to look awful."

She pronounces the last word "offal". And suddenly it's quite clear to me that I have spent a good part of my life looking offal. Fifteen minutes with Inès and I've mentally chucked out all my baggy sweaters for those nights in front of the telly. (...) Never wear shorts in Paris, they're only for tourists, she declares. I cringe, recalling how I'd arrived at the airport for that first summer holiday wearing shorts. What was I thinking? "When it's very 'ot, it's better to wear long pants in linen or cotton. You would feel more 'appy, and we would feel more 'appy too." 

And there it is - the explanation for Frédéric's pathological aversion to warmup pants. The simple statement that instantly elucidates why in hotel rooms he'll remove any paintings from the wall that don't meet his approval. (...) "They're ugly. I didn't feel well." (...) He can't help it, you see. The thing is, the French are highly sensitive to aesthetics. Anything unattractive - even something as insignificant as an underdressed tourist - can make them uncomfortable. It spoils the lovely scenery. They become irritable. Unwell, as Frédéric put it.


Catch me on a good day and I can look soignée and stylish. But on a bad day, racing through the streets with wild hair and flying laces, I must leave a trail of "unwell" Parisians in my wake.

Excerpt from Almost French by Sarah Turnbull

Posted by Julie at July 24, 2008 12:04 PM

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Posted by: Elisabeth [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 23, 2008 4:39 PM