Intercultural Fashion

In the non-Frump Factor part of my life, I teach English as a Second Language to students at a nearby college.  One of the many things that I like about my job is that it gives me an interesting window into different cultures.  Although I try to keep my real life separate from my blog life, every now and then there are weird moments of synchronicity.

The other day, for example, my students gave mini-presentations for the last time of the semester.  They had a list of topics to choose from, with 20 minutes to prepare a mini-speech.  All of the topics were related to chapters in their textbook, revolving around social and cultural issues that are accessible and controversial enough to get students talking.  As luck would have it, one of the chapters in their book was related to fashion.  While some might think that fashion is a trivial topic for ESL students to be discussing, it’s actually a pretty evocative one, simply because it touches on so many cultural issues, customs, and societal mores.

Lucky for me, several of my students chose a topic that asked them to compare fashion-related attitudes and customs in the U.S. to those in their home countries.  After the topics were given, and after my students took the time to prepare their comments, it was time for me to sit back and hear what they had to say.  And let me just say:  I found it fascinating.

Several students from Latin American countries stated that, in their home countries, the rules of fashion are a bit more strict.  They described more careful attention to appropriate dress in schools, churches and workplaces.  Some also said there is a lot more pressure to be stylish, focusing on things like designer labels even when budgets are tight.  I watched one of my shyest students come to life as she described how classmates used to judge every aspect of her outfit, from head to toe.  This student — who had struggled to meet the minimum requirements of every speaking assignment, and who had never once volunteered to speak — suddenly did animated impersonations of her picky classmates (“Oh my GOD!  What are you wearing on your feet?  Are you kidding?”).  She even chimed into the discussion that followed a classmate’s presentation, breaking in to add an additional example.

While she seemed to feel that it was nice to be away from this intense scrutiny, I sensed that she — like many of her Latina peers — may also miss the attention to style that they grew up with.  “It’s about respect,” said one of her peers.  “You show respect to the place where you are.”

I’d heard some of this before, especially from students advocating the use of uniforms in schools.  Certainly, the “anything goes” fashion parade occurring in American schools is, to say the least, a bit of a shock for many immigrant families.

It’s not that we have no fashion scene, or that there is no such thing as American style, of course.  But in general, we are a casually dressed culture.  We are known for jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, after all.  There is much flexibility in the rules of appropriate dress for everyday Americans in everyday places.  My students laughed with glee as they described people wearing pajamas in public, or mothers falling out of their tops at parent-teacher conferences.

Another student, also from a Latin American country, speculated about the reasons why Americans pay less attention to style.  “Nobody has time!” she laughed.  “Everybody is working, working, working.  Hurry up so you’re not late to work!”

I also have several Muslim students in my class, which raises a number of other fashion-related issues.  A student from Saudi Arabia explained that,  even though Muslim women in her country need to be covered in public, they still care a lot about fashion and style.  Jewelry, accessories like shoes and bags, beauty and grooming take on major importance, she pointed out.  I had already heard this from other sources, but it was a revelation to many of her classmates.

Finally, a student from Poland brought the house down when she described the fashion pressures in her country.  “If you buy a dress for a party, and then next year you wear the same dress, I don’t know how, but everybody knows.”  She said there were “older women” at these parties who didn’t dance, didn’t eat — just stood and watched.  “One year, I bought one dress, and my cousin bought another dress, and then the next year we switched, and they knew!”

My first thought was, “My God, what a brilliant idea!”  I also remembered some of the great blog posts I’ve read in the past 2 weeks, describing how you can get more mileage out of the same dress by using accessories judiciously.  Somewhere in Poland, apparently, this tactic doesn’t fly!

As with many instances of cultural adaptation, my students have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, many seem to miss the elegance and sense of decorum found in their home countries.  On the other hand, they also acknowledge that it’s nice to be comfortable.  It’s important to wear warm clothes in a tough winter.  It’s hard to walk in sky-high heels.  And — as my Polish student said — it’s kind of crazy to buy a new dress when you have a perfectly good one at home.

The discussion gave me a new perspective on something that I’ve noticed in the past — that my students, despite their busy lifestyles and moderate incomes, have a great sense of style.  Sometimes I wish I could take photos to capture the amazingly cute outfits they put together.  My students can rock Target Couture like nobody’s business!

Of course, as soon as they start living here, cultural adaptations occur.  Many of my students have taken on more casual habits, sporting faded jeans, hoodies, and yes, even pajama pants.   But let me tell you, even though I was furiously jotting down grading notes during these presentations, I couldn’t stop myself from looking around the circle and noticing one thing:  my students wear some ass-kickingly awesome boots.

I’ll admit it:  I hope they never lose that.  There are enough ugly American sneakers out there!

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About Anne @ The Frump Factor

Reflections on beauty and style, for women who weren't born yesterday. Bring your sense of humor and "Fight the Frump" with me!
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10 Responses to Intercultural Fashion

  1. Annie Joy says:

    This reminds me of something I read years ago, that seems to be contrary to what we believe about fashion now. I’m not sure that it’s still true, but what I read was that traditionally, French women (the epitome of chic) only bought one dress a season, of the very best quality they could afford. It was understood that friends and family would see the dress again and again, but that was fine because it was the practice and the dress would continue to be in fashion, since the chic woman was not a follower of fads. I’m sure, too, that these fashionable women also knew the value of accessories, to make the dress look a bit different each time it was worn.

    • You know, I’ve heard this too. I’m sure there are millions of different permutations of traditions and values, country by country but also from different subcultures within countries.

      Americans are often laughed at as being kind of frumpy (forgive the word!), but still we have NY Fashion Week, and Hollywood, and various other trendy styles that are very typically American. It’s fascinating, and full of contradictions.

  2. Gail says:

    What a great post. Fascinating. I work for a US company and the “dress down Friday” culture has become pervasive with everyone wearing jeans and hoodies all the time, except at customer meetings. I think this is sad, because it goes back to the comment about respecting the place where you are. Now with the recession, and more competition for jobs, companies are starting to be more strict about what’s worn, and it’s thought that all companies may smarten up their act. I hope so!

  3. CardiWrap says:

    It must be interesting for you to see such an accumulation of fashion. Have your students inspired some of your outfits?

  4. Serene says:

    May I just say, “BRILLIANT!!!”. I’ve touched on some of this on my blog….just the aspect of dressing up. It’s not about impressing anyone. It’s about respect. Respect for the people you see and converse with. When we dress with purpose, it shows them that they’re worth the effort. God bless America, but there are some of our customs that I really wouldn’t want to rub off on immigrants. I DO think we’re too “label” conscious. And the amount of money that we spend on clothes is OBSCENE! Which is really a dichotomy…that we’re label obsessed AND have no problem wearing pajamas in public.
    Thanks so much for the comment and visit to my blog! After reading some of your blog, I’m wondering if you are over 40….I’d love to add you to my over 40 list of bloggers. I’m puttin’ you into my blog feed girly! ~Serene

  5. Terri says:

    This is a fascinating post. I had a student from Brazil last year. We had been studying the book Affluenza, a topic about which she had many ideas. She said that she had been determined to resist the tendency to begin spending when she came here. While she had been solidly middle-class in her home country, she described going without things like “trapper keepers”. Apparently that passe style of notebook was something she REALLY wanted. She dd an entire research paper on her fellow ESL students and how they liked to SHOP in their spare time, for recreation!

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