The greatest piece of advice given to students studying abroad is to travel-and explore.It’s good advice I’ve followed. You meet a lot of curious people abroad, mostly out of the sheer newness of most situations. However, the more I’ve looked around, the more I’ve discovered cultural discrepancies. The way people carry themselves, the clothes they wear and the way they interact varies considerably from the United States to Europe, and even among countries within Europe. Perhaps especially among countries within Europe.
One thing I can’t help but notice is the distinct style of the French. After having spent a semester in Germany, where the official “style” is black everything (to make sure your outfit matches), I have been inundated with peculiar fashion choices in France-not good or necessarily attractive, per se, but always unique. In France, there is no real dominating “style.” It all tends to be an eclectic mish-mash of Punk, Rasta, and Vogue.
There are the well-groomed businessmen and women in Chanel suits heading to the office in the morning. There are the teenagers reviving (not reliving, because that would imply having lived through) the 80’s with M.C. Hammer pants, gold glitter bags and prints that would make Andy Warhol proud. There are the pseudo-hippies who insist on dreadlocks and patched-up jeans, and the faux cowboys and cowgirls who prefer gingham dresses and leather vests.
The groups of people I’ve mentioned, I see around-the town, the Campus, even my host sister gravitates toward certain fashion choices-but not every day. I see her in a number of different styles throughout the week: Monday might be Cowboy Chic, but Tuesday will herald a flannel shirt and a pair of Chucks. To put it mildly, the French are not afraid to experiment.
In contrast, the German fashion sense is über-trendy, all-black, or punk. With some variation, most people on a Berlin street fit into one of the three categories-aside from the tourist, who you can spot from a mile away. Especially if these tourists happen to be Japanese or Italian.
Italian fashion, I noticed while I was in Florence and Rome over Christmas, is dictated much more by what exactly one would find in the magazines: Dolce & Gabbana underwear is a big accessory (worn three inches above the waist of one’s pants). Droves of young men in leather jackets scourge the streets of Rome, and the girls wear skinny-legged jeans with four-inch high heels. Everyone wears a gold necklace; oftentimes the leather jackets are gold, too. Aside from the Bling Crowd, not much else is tolerated in Italy. Old men wear berets and tracksuits, old women wear bright red lipstick and silk scarves. Young men who wear berets are mercilessly teased; young women who don’t wear skin-tight pants just aren’t noticed (and in Italy, that’s something to wonder about).
English fashion, in London at least, is very preppy: popped collars, argyle, sweater-vests. All are represented in some form or other. To be honest, I did not notice any other fashion choice, besides the marginalized punk look which crops up among teenagers and young non-Londoner tourists. Everyone wears polo shirts. Everyone has at least one pair of Oxfords. Perhaps this is not surprising, given most of these styles originated in England, but the sheer lack of choice-and dare I say, originality?-surprise me. I find this true for both England and Italy.
Here’s a little addendum to my pearls of wisdom. Most observations have been made in big cities, not necessarily indicative of each culture as a whole. But sometimes I feel that the quintessence of a culture is concentrated in its big cities. Of course, no American would agree with the statement that New York or L.A. represents the whole of the United States, but most of the country is represented in some form or another in New York or L.A. fashion. Not the best or even the most popular fashion choices, but those that get the most publicity. A billboard says a thousand words, but a person on the street can match those words with a look, no matter what their nationality.