Town & Country is a series that looks at different aspects of sustainable living from the perspectives of two 20-something women. Here, Margaret and Katherine discuss how moving to another country has impacted how they think about clothing.
Margaret: A Parisian Savoir Faire
There is a very powerful trope of how the French dress: striped shirt, beret, scarf, and black clothes. Although I didn’t own a beret, I packed my bags with an eye towards fitting in, and a vague hope that not looking too much like a tourist would earn me some sort of acceptance while spending a year studying in Paris.
Living out of a single suitcase (I also packed a backpack, but that was reserved exclusively for books and journals), is by necessity an exercise in living with less. But what I learned about how to dress from spending my junior year of college in Paris has stuck with me through the years. Of course, it is easy to romanticize and stereotype Paris as the haute couture capital of the world, but simply people watching as I walked to class on Rue de Passy was an education in style.
Traditionally, clothing is much more expensive in Europe, which has encouraged a culture of shopping with care and making purchases with the intention of owning things for many years. Small apartments similarly discourage too much of anything. Fast fashion does exist everywhere in Europe, but generally I found my French friends to be much more disdainful of low quality clothes. I was only beginning to be able to spot poor construction and cheap fabrics, but soon began thinking more about how a garment was constructed and if it would last.
What struck me the most was that it was very rare to see anyone in Paris wearing something ill-fitting or unflattering. For many French women, a sense of personal style generally trumped whatever might be fashionable at the moment. One friend, Ann, could be easily spotted in her rose-colored jacket and vintage rock tee-shirts. Another friend, Aurianne, was always perfectly put-together with chic simplicity. One professor, who taught gender studies, dressed strikingly in richly draped kaftans over loose pants—always in all black. I met men, too, who were equally considerate of things like garment cut, fit and care.
All this thought about clothes on the surface may seem quite materialistic, but I found it encouraged me to own a few, very good things. When I wore out three pairs of shoes during that year (all purchased in the U.S. and probably made elsewhere), I replaced them with one moderately priced pair of Italian-made shoes, which lasted me for several years and were still in good enough condition to be sold to a second hand-shop.
Not every shopping choice I’ve made since moving back to the U.S. has been as successful. But I have found that asking myself, “Would I want to wear this in Paris?” has been a handy tool for both shopping and purging.
Katherine: Dressing in Italy was more stressful than enlightening
While I love Margaret’s end quote, “Would I want to wear this in Paris?” and can certainly see the value in using that as a little reminder while shopping, I can’t say that my experience with overseas dressing has been as positive as hers.
I spent a year studying in Sardinia, Italy, when I was 16. Being the inexperienced traveler I was at that age, I packed far too lightly and, within days, felt as if I had nothing to wear. This feeling was made worse by my realization that Italians love their clothes and, particularly among young people, have a more conformist attitude toward style than anything I’d seen back home in Ontario, Canada.
For example, every student in my Italian high school wore a jean jacket and carried an Invicta backpack. When I showed up with my red jacket and green MEC backpack, I stood out like a sore thumb in that sea of blue denim. It quickly became a priority of mine to buy a jean jacket (though I never ditched the backpack).
My host mother always looked perfectly put-together and there was an explicit expectation that all other members of the family would, too. I found myself scrambling to save my allowance in order to buy a new piece of clothing each month, just to feel like less of a style-lacking Canadian.
Because there were no fast or cheap fashion stores in my small town, the clothes I bought were both well made and expensive; a shirt easily cost 50 to 75 euros, which was a fortune for me. Under different circumstances, I would have preferred to spend that money on other things. Now, I would likely handle it differently, but being 16 in a foreign country and under the influence of a host family, I felt a certain element of pressure.
Upon returning to Canada, I experienced a sense of relief at not having to put so much effort and money into keeping up appearances. Sadly, that gets taken to another extreme in North America, where many people don’t care how they look, buy poor quality, ill-fitting clothes, and leave the house in all states of dishevelment, but there are days when it’s very refreshing not to have to worry about what others will think.
Italy did have a lasting effect on my personal style, not least of which is the value I now place on pulling myself together, even in small ways, before leaving the house. I’ve still got that jean jacket in the closet. (You can read more about it here on my personal blog.) Twelve years later, it’s still as good as new, so I suppose Italy also taught me the importance of buying high quality items built to last.