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Fashion Innocence Abroad–Or how I learned to dress myself in Paris

When we moved to Paris years ago, I knew enough not to pack bright white jogging shoes and T-shirts emblazoned with inane witticisms. Even so, I was not prepared for how out of place I felt. The sidewalks were teeming with intimidatingly chic women, slim as whippets, often accompanied by sleek men radiating insouciance and effortless disdain. My look, by contrast, screamed: “Say bonjour to Monsieur Doofus.”

Believing the devil is in the details, I tried to deconstruct the Parisian look. I started with accoutrements, like scarves. Back home I considered a scarf an article of clothing, associated with mittens and wassailing. But in Paris a scarf is a statement. Eskimos may have a hundred words for snow; Parisians have a thousand looks for scarves.

And how they wear them is the result of a subtle confluence of many factors: sex, age, height, attitude, posture, time of day. Air temperature is only marginally relevant. I’ve seen people wearing scarves with T-shirts and shorts, while jogging. Knotted, double-knotted, draped, tightly wound around necks like a contracting python, it doesn’t matter. Parisians look dashing in them. When I strove for the same panache, I resembled a trussed lumberjack.

So I moved on to shoes. I decided to buy what was popular: Converse. These are perfectly adequate coverings for feet, but I could not bring myself to spend the equivalent of a meal in a three-star restaurant for them. Then one day my quest made me pause in front of a boutique. I knew the store was dangerously expensive because it had in its window a single shoe. Nearby, mounted under plexiglass like an information plaque in a museum exhibit, was an exegesis of the exotic piece of footwear. The item was a “mocassin fétiche”—a shoe which had a fanatical following among “collegiens américains.” In my country, I was informed, it was known as: “Le Penny Loafer.” And in Paris it cost the equivalent of a semester at Princeton.

And I was no closer to solving the fashion conundrum. My epiphany came from my stylish daughter. Parisians, she noted, do not wear a lot of color. Therefore, if I dressed as though I were going to the memorial service of a casual acquaintance—dark but not overly somber clothes that say, “I am marginally sorry Bob is dead, so I’m dropping in, but I will be running a few errands afterwards”—and wore a scarf, I would get by.


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