Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Way We Dress: What is Chic?

The Way We Dress: What is Chic? What is French Chic?

We, in parts of the world other than France, are led to believe, but of course, you dress to go to the boucherie (the butcher) or the boulangerie (the baker) or the grocers in France. This may in fact be true, more so in Paris than in the country. "Look chic no matter where you are . . . the postal carrier might see you"; I have heard a variety of substitutions to this version. Mind you, today in my part of France, the postal carrier was wearing shorts and a jean jacket. If he had any kind of apparel with postal insignia, I didn't see it. I only know he was the postal carrier because of the letters he handed my husband as we came out of our house; but I digress. Perhaps the most famous "be dressed" version comes from the book Almost French (2004) by Australian author, Sarah Turnbull when her French husband asked where she was going dressed "like that" in her "gymnastic pantaloons". When she informs him that she is just going to pick up some bread, his response is that, "it is not nice for the baker". Basically, you dress to show respect for anyone who will see you out and about. One can only imagine who might see you? You owe it to them.

Having said that, it is interesting to note that, in the first two weeks of my stay here in France, I have noted more casual dress than ever before.  First the postal carrier and then two other situations particularly - the bank and the civic office where I had to pay my habitation tax. In both situations blue jeans were being worn by the staff who dealt with me directly. (Don't even try to use the argument about designer blue jeans - trust me, these were not designer jeans.) Here in France, where chic was born, I felt better dressed than the office staff taking my money. At the very least they could dress well when taking my money for annual taxes when I only live here part-time. I think they owe it to me. (This is written "tongue in cheek" - translation: not to be taken seriously.)

Harriet Welty Rochefort distinguishes La Parisienne from all other French women, in her Letter From Paris, March, 2002. "She is, of course, part myth. You only have to ride the metro or take the bus in Paris to conclude that this mythical Parisienne is not to be found everywhere." I like Rochefort's analysis of La Parisienne from a foreigner's perspective.

To elaborate on Rochefort's observation, the following two photographs were taken in Paris at the end of September, 2011. Now I love Paris and I love France; after all I have chosen to live here for a portion of time each year. However, other than Rochefort (2002), lately I have been reading information by non-French writers that in some ways misrepresents chic by suggesting only French women have it and it is unattainable by others. The Paris citizens in the photographs do not look any more chic than anyone else in any other part of the world looks when doing ordinary day to day business. Saying that, notice there are no "gymnastic pantaloons" in either photo.

If "comfortable casual" (see the April post) is what the world believes is the general state of dress in North America, Australia and New Zealand, and if that same world believes that the French state of dress epitomizes chic, there are alternate examples that can be used to debate both situations. True, North Americans in general think nothing of scooting off to buy a few things at the grocery store dressed in their sweats (AKA "gymnastic pantaloons" in this post); but it is no different in the French town where I live six months of the year. It's true, they do not wear sweats, but it is not chic either.

So what is my opinion of chic? If I equate chic with being well-dressed, there are well-dressed and poorly dressed individuals all over the world. But one then could ask, So is chic simply to be well-dressed? That question suggests another post. 

Stereotypes, whether negative or positive, can always be debated.

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