Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Fashion Innocent Abroad

I was not prepared for how woefully out of place I felt as I strolled down the boulevards of Paris. The sidewalks were teeming with intimidatingly chic women, slim as whippets, carrying tiny shopping bags, often accompanied by sleek men radiating insouciance and effortless disdain. My look, by contrast, screamed: “Say Bonjour to Monsieur Doofus.”

Believing the devil is in the details, I tried to deconstruct the Parisian look. I started with accoutrements, like scarves. Back home I considered a scarf an article of clothing, associated with mittens and wassailing and scraping the ice off my windshield. But in Paris a scarf is a statement. Eskimos may have one hundred words for snow, but Parisians each own about 1200 scarves.

How they wear them is the result of subtle confluence of many factors: sex, age, height, attitude, posture, time of day and, for all I know, shoe size and the phase of the moon. Air temperature and weather are only marginally relevant. I’ve seen people wearing them with T-shirts and shorts, while jogging, even indoors teaching class. Knotted, double knotted, draped, tightly wound around necks like an attacking python, it doesn’t matter. Parisians look dashing in them. When I strove for the same panache, I resembled a deranged lumberjack.

So I moved on to shoes. I decided I would buy what was popular. And what was popular were Converse sneakers. These are perfectly adequate coverings for feet, but I could not bring myself to spend the equivalent of a meal in a three-star restaurant for what is essentially canvas glued to a slab of rubber.

Then one day I noticed a shoe boutique around the corner from me. I knew the store was dangerously expensive because it had in its window a single shoe. Nearby, mounted under plexiglass like an information plaque in a museum exhibit, was an exegesis of the exotic piece of footwear [See above].
The item was a “mocassin fétiche” – a shoe which had a fanatical following among “collégiens américains.” In my country, I was informed, it was known as: “Le Penny Loafer.” And in Paris it cost the equivalent of a semester at the Sorbonne.
I should have been pleased. I own a pair of “Loafers de Centime” and even a pair of “Sneakers Converse.” The problem was they were in a storage container in Nouvelle Jersey.

Plus this brought me no closer to solving the fashion conundrum. So I switched to analyzing the gestalt of the Parisian look. My epiphany came from my stylish daughter who had lived here. Parisians, she noted, do not wear a lot of color. I decided that if I dressed as though I were going to the memorial service of a casual acquaintance – dark but not overly somber clothes which say, "I am marginally sorry Bob is dead, so I'm dropping in, but I will be running a few errands afterwards" – and wore a scarf, I would get by. And I have.

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