In the process of adapting to life abroad, my first step, whether passing through or settling into a more permanent routine, is to slip on a pair of “host country goggles”. Thanks to these exotic, magical lenses, I have the ability to identify and adopt hot local trends, leaving behind my tame fashion sense for a more worldly style! Or, at least that’s what I thought when I purchased a clan tartan in Edinburgh (I almost made it home with a kilt, but my sister thought it might be a little over the top), fredlocks (fake pink dreadlocks) in Prague, silver leather sequined slip ons in Morocco and a puffy sleeved peasant top in Romania. Yet, back home, host country goggles set aside, I take one look in the mirror and am faced with the single burning question of “what on earth was I thinking?
Who among us hasn’t gone a little wild while under the influence of a pair of “host country goggles”, only to regret the purchase post trip? Are these simply moments of instant shopper insanity or is the goggle phenomenon rooted in something much deeper? Fashion is an important form of cultural expression and the choices we make in our personal style, reflect both our individual tastes and cultural influences. This means the way we dress tells those around us who we are and where we come from, just as shared style preferences may signal common social experiences and cultural values.
I initially noticed this while living in South India. Within weeks of my arrival, I was bewitched by the bold fashion choices of Indian women. Their colorful bejewelled saris and ornate jewelry came to represent all that I admired in my Indian experience: ancient customs mingling side by side with modernity. It wasn’t long before I was probing the busy streets of Pondy bazaar with my Indian friends looking for gaudy nose rings, shimmering bangles and authentic kanchipurum silk. One scorching afternoon, while seeking relief in an air conditioned jewelry shop on GN Chetty Road, I met a kind woman and her mother who complimented me on my nose piercing and stylish “Salwar Kameez” (traditional pants suit). Both women agreed that it was so nice to see a young western woman who respected such “Indian values” as modesty and beauty. Flattered, I gushed about my growing love for all things Indian. The mother and daughter pair were so impressed they offered me a rather large gawdy nose ring of my own, and invited me to dinner at their house later that evening. Since that night, I have only worn the nose ring once (it turns out a nose ring the size of a golf ball isn’t my best look), yet my exchange with these women is forever engraved in my memory. By appropriating local fashion choices, I was essentially communicating to my hosts an interest in their culture and a desire to participate in the local social environment.
Miles away from the crowded streets of south India, on the distant shores of West Africa, I encountered a similar experience. In Dakar, I adopted the local look of brightly printed cloth head-wraps and long fitted sarong like skirts. My female colleagues loved to tease me about being more “Senegalese” than American. Fashion was a way for me to bond with my colleagues and they appreciated the efforts I made to integrate into the local environment. We exchanged advice about tailors, discussed the appropriate bargaining price of fabric and the best way to wear a “bin bin” (belly charms) to warm the heart of your man. Slowly our talks evolved, moving beyond superficial discussions about fashion to personal and societal issues.
My enthusiasm for their culture was first made noticeable through my fashion choices, eventually giving these women the confidence to open up and welcome me as friend rather than treating me as a foreigner. The moments I shared with my colleagues are quickly fading into distant memories, yet my time in both India and Senegal continues to shape an integral part of my worldview and personal identity. Now back home in Paris, I have found that one way to demonstrate my enduring affinity to these cultures and experiences is also through my personal style choices. No, I haven’t yet tried to rock the bright blue sari in the streets of Paris, but I often pair a headscarf with blue jeans or sparkly bangles with a little black dress. Occassionally, I’ll pass in front of the mirror and ask myself with a smile “what on earth was I thinking?” Well, I remember now that I was thinking in terms of my local environment, I was participating in life changing events that made me who I am today.