When I was reluctantly packing my bags for Paris, I was worried my suitcase of vintage dresses would not cut it. Having obsessed over Paris’ notoriously chic female species since I picked up my first fashion glossy, how would my frumpy Midwestern duds ever stand up to the Capital of haute couture? My anti-fashion upbringing has left me with an inherent interest in clothing. Growing up on peanuts, I was begrudgingly outfitted in my older brother’s hand-me-down superhero t-shirts. Or better yet, my mother dragged us along to the thrift store long before it made its comeback. But as I thumbed through the rows of color-coordinated sartorial rejects, all I really wanted was to dress in Limited Too and Gap Kids like everyone else at school. And have blond hair and finally learn how to do a cartwheel. But as I grew up, I started studying fashion magazines. A quarter vintage, a quarter suburban fashion mall, and a half my own scary sewing projects, I curated a very colorful look of my own. Long before I picked up a paintbrush, fashion was my daily dose of self-expression.
When I got off the plane at Charles de Gaulle, I was boldly armed in my favorite ruffled, red Chiquita banana dress. And I quickly learned what I had become: a big, fat foreigner. I crossed some impeccably chic French women on the street with their ritualistic blowouts, invisible makeup, and enviable silhouettes. Meeting up with my other expat pals, feeling fat and frumpy, we all conspired about the secrets of these impossible creatures. But I quickly learned that much like most cafes in Paris, French fashion was frankly underwhelming. Yes, there were the exceptions. There was the rare spotting of a fashion editor. And I distinctly remember a woman in all black on a scooter with a shockingly pink pair of heels. But in general, French women stick to a calculated uniform. Women of all ages follow the same formula: the smart, straight-legged jeans, silk blouses, cashmere v-necks, short boots, and a lot of monochrome. And it starts from an early age. At the sortie d’école, kids are dressed in the same silhouettes as their parents. Girls sport ballet flats, skinny jeans, and cashmere sweaters just like their mothers.
So where did this leave me? Adapting to a new country certainly had its compromises. My ‘Midwest does Carmen Miranda’ wardrobe got scary tongue-wagging attention from strangers. So I muted my color palette. I sadly replaced my polyester ruffles with knits. Unlike America, where a little eye contact could get a friendly ‘howdy-do’ from a passing stranger, that quickly backfired. Every guy I made eye contact with all of a sudden had something extremely important to tell me. I thought not speaking French would be a free pass out of these situations, but they all went down a laundry list of languages they spoke until finding the right one. Nevertheless, I learned to sink my head low and keep my smile to myself. I was becoming more French already. But by adhering to French fashion in an attempt to distract attention, I was losing touch with both my self-righteous culture and my own style.
Expats typically fall into two distinct categories. There are those who fully integrate, those who attempt to squeeze into Petit Bateau. And there are those who remain exactly the same, fearlessly going to the boulangerie in flip-flops. Although I have adopted an appreciation for the taste, appropriateness, and quality of French fashion, I am finally regaining my own personal style. Yes, I have an accent, but my outfit is usually a precursor to who I am. Although I now can admit that I am a product of my individualistic culture, I would not have it any other way.