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!