As every person who lived and travel through in many places, I have built over the year a very eclectic wardrobe. I have also felt out of place couple of times because the sense of what is appropriate to wear for women vary a lot from one culture to the other. Thanks to experience and the friendly guidance of my sister-in-law, I have developed a deeper sense for what is appropriate to wear where and for which occasion.
Here is an exhaustive summary of my intercultural fashion realization and understanding of the lady-wear etiquette in France, India and the United-States.
Style is more about attitude than about the cloth:
French women dress to impress, like everywhere in the world, the style of the cloth betray one’s social standing. Our society is very hierarchical and thus women tend to select cloth that do not emphasize to much their personality, people judge and we want to stand out for our charisma, attitude and personality rather than our fashion choice.
There are a plenty of rules:
We all strive for a certain type of elegance relying mostly on basic principles taught by our mothers, while it is a low effort, this uniformity means that you could spot french women abroad in matter of seconds. Usually we wear maximum 3 colors, 1 type of print and a few simple accessory pieces to complete the outfit with light make-up and bright lipstick. In a lot of families there are rules that you should come dressed and showered for breakfast and people stay in those cloth until they switch into their night dresses in the evening.
Image source: ELLE; How 14 french Women define style; Oct. 28, 2015
Style is about showing your individuality
In America more than anywhere, cloth are the expression of one individuality. Walking through the major american cities, I am always impressed to see extravagant and highly personalized style. American have a passion for it girls (like the Kardashian or the Hadid’s sisters), they get media attention and generate quasi public adoration just for their fashion choices and lifestyle.
You don’t always have to impress and comfort is non negotiable
Our first 3 month in the US, I accompanied my husband on a business trip in Pittsburgh we stayed in a hotel all the while and I was quite shocked a couple of time of how people choose to dress in public in the US. Nearly every weekend you would see men and women coming down to have their breakfast in their pyjama. Now, I am no longer surprised when I meet neighbor walking their dog in PJ, or shopping in animal onesie.
It’s not because you don’t do sport that you cannot wear sport cloth
In US you find business “yoga pants” in regular clothing store (e.g. Banana Republic). 50+ ladies would go everywhere in summer wearing a in mini-sport short. Some people literally choose to wear sneakers everyday in office jobs. For Europeans it is just unthinkable and one of my american friend remembers being frowned upon at her french bakery each time she would buy a baguette in yoga pants on her way back from her jog… ah ces americains!
There is not such a thing as too sexy…
Whether it is to go clubbing or to on a date, young women would switch their tracksuit on Saturday night to put one high heels paired with a very short and tight dress with or without (for the prudish ones) a deep cleavage to go clubbing or on a date. On our last trip to LA, I also saw a few see-through top and dresses where it looks like the girl is walking top less in the street. To be honest I don’t really get the point of wearing this type of cloth. While I found some of the dresses pretty, this is extremely uncomfortable (you cannot walk fast or bend without exposing your undie). Unless one has a perfect body, one has to use a couple of beauty artifice like spanks or skipping a meal to hide the slightest bit of belly and look attractive instead of vulgar.
Another end of the american wear spectrum is what I call the “lazy” sexy look… this one is my personal favorite since you never know if the teenager wearing tiny hot pants, lazy flip flop and huge sweatshirt is actually covering her bottom or not.
… unless you are religious and have to dress according to modesty standard
If you belong to one of the many religious affiliation in the US (80 % of the population in 2008 census), chances are that the length of your dress or the neckline of your top is dictated by the “5 or 2 fingers rules”. Before living in the US, and despite being raised catholic, I had never heard of this and after a short research found that it originates in a papal decree from 1930.
It is a 180° transformation in public space and at home:
An Indian women go from overly simple to over the top in the blink of an eye. They would wear old or very simple cloth inside their home but you would not find any nationality more elegant when it is time to go out. They will not leave there home without putting on a nice sari or salwar kurta (tunic and pants) for the younger generation. Everyone does it, so if someone shows up unannounced at your door, they do not need to hurry to change into something else.
You can wear as many colors and pattern as you wish for:
From youth to old age and through all level of society women wear all available colors and never just one plain color. There are two exception though. White is seen as the color of death in India and only widows would wear a plain white outfit. Similarly black is associated with negative emotions and evil and ladies rarely wear black. If they do wear black or white, it is never plain and always include golden and colorful trim.
Gold (or at least golden) jewelry is a must:
Though it’s changing a lady never leave her house without a bindi on the forehead and a lot of jewelry, from glass and gold bangles to earring, anklets, nose rings, headpiece and necklaces. At my Indian wedding I wore the entire package for a day and truly wondered how indian ladies can wear those extra kilos (pounds) of jewelry and still manage to raise children, run households and go to work. Without practice, I found it very uncomfortable and noisy. I tease my mother in law that I always know where she is in the house thanks to the sound of her bangles.
It would not fit the Pope’s Modesty standard: Showing your ankle or your legs is unthinkable for most Indian women of all religion, social status and age. For a western lady this is ironical since women expose their belly and backs in a Sari everyday.
Travelling and living in different places I really see how our notion of aesthetics, beauty and elegance vary in all cultures. Overtime I have developed my own dress-code: I try to respect the local modesty standard both out of respect and also because it can have a huge impact on the feeling of personal safety. I wear cloth in which I feel attractive and comfortable, sometimes it can been seen as sexy but most often not and as I grow older I do not care as much as before about what people think anymore.
Initially I was trying to please everyone, dressing like the perfect daughter-in-law in India or very french when I was with my family to prove I did not change. Ultimately people who love you accepts you as you are, and while they might worry that you are being instrumentalized in some kind of civilization clash (east vs. west), they will accept it if they see that you are happy.