All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Clothes maketh the man

In Following the Fashion (1794), James Gillray...Image via Wikipedia

This or last week...time seems to dip and swerve alarmingly in the country....I saw a picture in the paper of a woman dressed as a gold lame earthworm. This making a change from pictures of women dressed in very little, I looked at the title and found that the earthworm was attending the Paris fashion week shows.

More pictures were to be found on the net. It was all quite alarming.

There was a woman whose hair seemed to have been dressed into a pudding on top of her head while wearing a dress like a triangle in layers of net....there were women whose mothers had clearly run out of money for the party dress and had been sewing handkerchiefs together in unusual ways...there were women with their hair dressed into horns...there were greek tunics that had got out of hand, an amazing amount of 'working girls' seemed to have gained access to the catwalks and someone had disinterred a group of Edwardian ladies dressed for the hunt meet. I did see a few hoodies, but no burquas.

There was a very nice long line jacket and trousers which looked normal, but that was about it.

Clearly these fashion shows have some influence on my life...they explain why styles which I like and which suit me only appear rarely in the shops as the clothes buyers start ordering stuff which reflects the 'themes' of the shows from their suppliers.

It has been years since I managed to find shoes I like to wear without having to have them made for me, so I live in espadrilles in summer and a mix of gardening clogs, wellies and turkish woolly sock shoes in winter with the odd foray in proper shoes to go shopping.

For clothes it is much worse. I was a shopper at John Lewis and Monsoon when in the U.K., which, together with descents on the charity shops, sorted me out with wardrobes for all occasions. A visit to the U.K. showed me that while John Lewis was still to be relied on, Monsoon had gone way downhill, especially in the fabrics they used, while the charity shops were suffering from a policy of taking the better stuff to so called better class shop sites, none of which I frequent, so my hopes of sorting out some of the major wardrobe deficiencies were short lived.

Cheap clothes in France are just Or they are cheap clothes sold at a high price. I refuse to pay the earth for something that will unravel, not wash up properly, and is made from chemically treated plastic. I could have got the last bit wrong - chemistry was never my strong point - but I like natural fibres. I draw the line at wearing a tee shirt made from banana fibre, but that only from indignation that it is being marketed as 'green', which is the last thing the commercial banana could be described as being.

I haunt the 'end of lines' shops where the most amazing stuff can be found...not just clothes, but all sorts, from sauces to gardening stuff....garnered from firms in liquidation, fire damaged stock and goodness only knows what else. How does wine labeled as Waitrose get into an odds and bods shop in deepest France? Clothes from Asda? Sauces from Sainsbury? Dulux paint at affordable prices?

However, I have found clothes I like there...wonderful cotton trousers from China, smart enough to wear anywhere and easy to wash...Thai fisherman's trousers...linen skirts....the only thing is, I know they won't be there too long, so I have to buy as many as I think I will need over the next few years.

Before the English found these shops, I once had a super bargain.....there were piles of boxes of wine, red for one euro, white for half a euro....and trawling the display, I found a huge amount of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. I borrowed a corkscrew and a plastic cup from the manager, bought one bottle, tried it and promptly cleared him out of the whole lot. The poor car was groaning and I drove home very gently, but it was well worth it. The manager was pleased too...the French wine had been selling, but his French customers were not going to touch 'foreign muck'.....still, their xenophobia was my gain.

I do notice that French women who believe themselves to be of a superior class will not buy is social suicide even to be seen in the vicinity, just as it is to be seen in Lidl or Aldi. A local notaire's wife, responding to a barbed question as to why her car had been seen in the Lidl carpark, replied that she had lent to car to her cleaning woman to do her shopping while the latter's car was in the garage. Clearly, only cleaning women and English would admit to shopping in such a place.

The other thing I notice is that status is awarded to those who dress appropriately. The notaire's wife and her peers will not go out of the house without full make up, shingled hair combed into place and the obligatory suit. Floral in summer, pastel in winter. Don't even think of calling on them at home without telephoning first...they need time to get out of their dressing gown and slippers and change into uniform.
Remember too, the great cultural divide.....the English like to relax on sundays in old flannels and jerseys with holes in the elbows. The French are 'endimanche'....dressed up for sunday. Both are making it clear that they are not working, but in totally different ways.

In France, you have to show status to be accorded it and I often think that is one of the sources of misunderstanding between the French and the English living in France. The English tend to go shopping, or to the bank, or wherever, in casual, not so smart, downright indecent....but casual. Accordingly their French interlocutor treats them as people below the salt and xenophobia mixed with social discrimination does not make for a good commercial relationship.

I can remember my first insurance agent coming to the house to give me a quote. We had a coffee, went through his offers, arranged the least financially damaging option - after all, we both knew his company would never pay up anyway - and he took his leave.

'I had no idea that you had so many nice things,' he said.

Clearly, from my general appearance - non shingled hair, gardening trousers and espadrilles for local shopping wear - he had assumed that I was living on the breadline.

His assumptions are shared by his compatriots who, thinking their customer of no account, treat him accordingly.

I just wonder, though, what a shopkeeper in rural France would make of a woman whose hair was tied up on her head like a pudding and who was wearing a sort of net triangle.

How would he categorise her?

Well, she would have one advantage as soon as she opened her would be clear that she was not English.

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