Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fashion and Self Image

Shoes. Clothes. Girls do like them. And, living in France, they seem just that much more important.

When back in the US, it appears that the most beautiful American women are those in fabulous physical shape. Women who glow with good health, smooth legs and arms, taught bellies, a light tan, and who look just fabulous in an old pair of jeans and their boyfriend's white t-shirt. Health, athletics, strength, flexibility.

In France, what counts is style. Making the most of what you were born with. Strenuous athletics, multiple afternoons at the gym are still pretty anathema to the local female population. The general diet is healthy and not fattening – vegetables galore, salads at every meal, reasonable portions—and the cities being small, you can walk everywhere (nearly). So the gym is not necessary to being aesthetically pleasing.

Soon after my arrival in this fair land, I quickly learned not to wear sneakers except when I play tennis or go hiking. Then, I started choosing jeans for their fit and elegance, and put aside my brother’s hand-me down Levis. I like pretty shoes, but when you walk tons they have to have relatively sturdy heels. It's simply depressing destroying little heels too quickly. So, I choose for style, comfort, and practicality -- yes, that means a certain budget. I've come to spend more time putting myself together, that little extra touch of a scarf, jewelry, a bit more make-up. And yes, shoes: little boots that are elegant but comfortable under jeans or with a skirt; fluid and feminine clothes that flattered my figure – happily, not much changed from my college days (which also translates into a slightly too large wardrobe, as I'm loath throw things away...)

For years in Arles we’d earned so little that I simply never permitted myself to walk into a clothing or shoe boutique. However, to sate little desires, and to have that kick of something new in my wardrobe, I became an adept at the local flea market. Every Wednesday in Arles, from early morning till noon, tables of clothes are set up in the parking lot down the street from our house. There, I let my fingers do the walking. Perhaps it was all those years of giving massages, or being blind in the photo room, in any case, my fingers found me cashmere sweaters, silk shirts, linen jackets, lined wool pants, dresses, and even a few pairs of funky ankle boots. Most of what I found was simply useful, particularly when I was carrying around a few extra pounds after my pregnancies. But, even now, years’ later, I still have those little boots, an elegant double-breasted lined black linen jacket with mother of pearl buttons, a pair of elegant Jill Sander grey wool pants, Jill sander black suede sandals, summer dresses, a jean jacket, and my favorite lined brown suede redding coat style jacket. Not bad. I was able to dress my kids cheaply this way too, likewise Erick, and whenever I saw something a dear friend would like, I would grab it too.

The prices at the flea market followed the economy. When I first started going, every item was 5 Francs a piece (about a dollar). Then the Euro came in, and they became 1E a piece (which was equivalent to 6.67Francs, so a 20% jump). The next year it became 2E a piece. Highway robbery. And, a few years’ later, the prices were all over the place, 5E, 20E, 15E. No longer could I fill a sac with fun finds and head home having spent no more than 10E. Oh well. All good things do eventually come to an end.

My efforts at caring for myself were reflected back to me by the shop-keepers (the more elegantly you are dressed, the more respect and attention you will receive), my friends, men in the street, and even my boys (they're proud to have a pretty mommy). France is a world that values elegant women. The last good years of the b&b/cooking school business with Erick were good ones, and I was finally been able to treat myself to new clothes from the funky and elegant boutiques in Arles, St. Rémy de Provence and Avignon. And yes, I definitely enjoyed picking out flattering, fun, sometimes unusual, purchases.

Frenchmen clearly enjoy seeing women dressed well and they encourage it. It's quite possible that it's simply a reflection back on their good taste in choosing you, as much as the aesthetic pleasure of looking at you. And yet, I do come from the US, and the more casual style of dressing here is tempting. There are definitely times when staying in sweats all day, with glasses on and hair all askew is just where you're at. How to weigh these very different cultural norms.


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