I’d been mulling over a post on cultural differences being back in the US when I realized that some of these lifestyle elements needed posts of their own, beginning with: yoga pants.
After a few days in Delaware, Tim asked me why none of the women were wearing regular clothes. Most of the women we saw in the bagel shop, in the grocery store, crossing the road, were wearing stretchy yoga pants, flip-flops or sneakers, and a t-shirt or sweatshirt. I find the same thing now in Cambridge: when I’m in the Whole Foods, I’m trying to figure out if each individual woman just was exercising, or if she is just dressed like she could exercise.
Our stylish friend Marten commented on this phenomenon after a home-visit to Canada. “Where’s the class?” he lamented. “Why is everyone in their pajamas?” Our American expat friend Ian talked about the sideways glances he got wearing a scarf (as an accessory) to the US office.
It’s true: casual-wear is more of a North American entity. When we first arrived in Delft, it didn’t take me long to notice that I was the only non-tourist wearing pink plastic flip-flops everywhere (in July!). Going to the grocery store in my workout clothes felt a little awkward; going in my pajama pants was straight-out unthinkable. Over the years I ditched the T-shirts, ditched the flip-flops; and as my wardrobe changed, I noticed, people stopped addressing me in English before I’d opened my mouth.
Part of it has to do with anonymity. If I go to the grocery store in Cambridge, it’s unlikely that I’m going to run into someone I know. The town and the store are just too big. In Delft, I was always running into neighbors, friends, and colleagues. The invisible wall that said “I’m in plaid slouchy pants, and it’s OK” disappeared.
Then there are social cues. Europe maintains more social cues than the US does. General niceties must be observed, and this includes how you present. In the US collective consciousness there’s this image of the “girl next door”—she looks good wearing jeans or sweats, but she could dress up if she chose. And on a regular Tuesday, at the grocery store? She does not choose.
I get that. Before becoming a freelancer, I worked in two offices where (thank God) a “professional wardrobe” was not required. Jeans and a shirt were totally OK. So I know this could sound like Europe has some image-law you have to maintain, but it didn’t feel that way. (Though I am having a mental echo of a passage, I think, from David Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris where he discusses how in his Paris neighborhood it was completely inappropriate to so much as take out your garbage without being fully coiffed for the day.) I felt very free in Europe to express myself through how I dressed—but the norms encouraged me to care about how I looked. And when I did, I felt good about myself, in a way that was new. I’d never considered myself a fashionable person before.
It was a win-win when Tim took the European fashion book to heart, too. Jeans with a shape; stylish brown shoes; a casual button-down rather than a T-shirt. He even began carrying a bag, which I personally love because then I’m not toting anyone else’s possessions in my (already heavy) shoulder bag. After years of shopping for men’s clothes in the US where even “smaller” sizes seem cut for a tank, shopping for Tim’s clothes in Europe was a breath of fresh air.
We didn’t buy as much clothing, because clothing costs more there. There aren’t discount chains like TJ Maxx. Every store you walk in doesn’t just have a sale rack in the back. I didn’t frequently wind up impulse-buying a sweater just because “It was on a great sale!”. But what we did buy felt more like an investment.
Moving back is a little like fighting the tide. I already bought a hoodie (“Oh, this is so cute!”). I bought blue flip-flops, because we’re going to the beach over Memorial Day weekend. Tim asked me the other day, wearing one of his lovely European shirts and dress shoes: “Do I look dumb?”
I’m at a grocery store cafe right now, and I’m wearing my regular European skinny jeans. Will it last? Time will tell.