The people are revolting. And I'm leading the revolution.
A couple of weekends ago my roller derby team and I were in a fashion studio in Alésia shooting profile and publicity photos for each of the league players, and a calendar for fundraising. It's no earth-shattering revelation that the Parisians know how to do fashion, so this was no rock-up, point and shoot affair. I got to experience a professional studio, makeup and hair artists, stylists, photographers and other assorted Important People who make the whole thing work. Some of our players work in the industry and managed to pull in favours from all directions to get this to happen basically pro-bono, so to answer your question, no, we aren't that rich.
The Saturday was the day for the individual player shoots and we each chose whatever wacky hair and makeup style our hearts desired. In my appalling frenglish I was able to convey that I wanted two cat-like ears on the top of my head, made of hair. And voilà , it was so. The shoot was a riot, and the the photos look amazing, but once I left the studio and was walking to the bus with my hair and cat makeup still intact and carrying my skates, I was brought crashing back to the reality of the strangely conservative city I live in. I am still trying to decipher the social codes and rules of engagement when it comes to fashion here, but so far I have worked out that although dressing well and understanding fashion is de rigueur, too much individual style is highly questionable.
Not long ago, I walked into a party and before I had even opened my mouth, was identified as foreign.
“You're not French” the uncommonly bleary-eyed Gaul declared.
“Ah no. I'm going to take that as a compliment”
On that occasion my otherness wasn't a problem, but if I had a euro for every time I could see a rude “Quoi?” basically stamped on the face of the person sitting opposite me, well by Jove I'd be rich. Its partially the smile. Parisians don't smile like us Aussies. But mostly, the women don't wear Doc Martens or hoodies or heavens above, roller skate.
So it shouldn't have surprised me that I, walking through Alésia at about 8pm with my skates and hair and face and height, was drawing attention. But what I wasn't prepared for was the hostility I sensed. A clot of women passed me and I could feel their eyes boring holes in me as they assessed me disdainfully from head to toe. A man smoking on the corner did spectacularly indiscreet 180 in order to keep me in his field of view, and when I was waiting at the bus stop, another charming gentlemen attempted to start up a conversation.
I murmured one back, hoping that would be the end of it.
“Ca va? Oui? Ca va bien?” It wasn't the end of it. Turns out he was drunk, but what really got me was that I picked up a “travails?” and realised he was asking me if I was working. As in working. I'd love to meet the kind of prostitute who solicits at bus stops in cat makeup and roller-skates, but apparently that was the only possible explanation for my attire.
Not thirty seconds later, I found myself looking back at a guy who was staring at me from his car, as his wife nattered on obliviously. I looked away, looked back, and sure enough he was still at it. I tried staring him down, but the foolishness of the situation got the best of me and I started to smile. Doesn't he realise that I can see him? I can see you.
Shocked by my laughter, he started laughing too, and began enthusiastically miming a pair of ears on the top of his head, pointing at me so I would know we were in on the joke together. I kept laughing and waved as he drove off. But why didn't he just smile in the first place? Why doesn't everyone just give a little smile? I know I look weird, but is that really such a problem? I'm not asking you to look weird too. And if I have enlivened your walk to wherever you are going a little, which I obviously have, don't I deserve a smile?
I know I get away with a lot, being foreign, and this is a privilege I'd never give up. I truly admire the chicness of the French men and women, and sometimes I like to emulate their style, but most of the time it's just not me. I'm not particularly elegant or refined or chic. I like being comfortable, and wearing colours because they make me happy. I can rock a dress and heels as well as the next girl, but most of what I wear I carried with me halfway across the world in a backpack, so I don't have a hell of a lot to work with. Plus I'm a native speaker teaching English which puts me in a unique position of being slightly looked down upon but utterly invaluable at the same time. Want me to change the way I dress for work? OK, express that using the future form correctly.
No, I didn't think so.
I'm usually not bothered by drawing a bit of attention, but that night after my bus-stop proposition, I sadly un-wound the beautifully executed hairstyle I had hoped to get a few more hours out of, because I was heading clear across town and simply couldn't be bothered with the hassle. I was feeling grumbly and annoyed by the time I got to the pub, so it was sometime into my second pint that it registered that I was in the middle of touristville, directly next to the Moulin Rouge.
I found myself watching a group of young men and women disapprovingly, eyeing the guy's cheap polyester football shirts and the girls swathes of unexposed, jibbly flesh. Clearly tourists. Clearly English. Their hair, their clothes, even their shoes were all misguided attempts to be stylish and dress up for the famously fashionable city of lights, but they couldn't have stood out more from the Parisians around them if they tried*.
As I mentally tut-tutted at their revolting appearance, the irony of the situation dawned on me. I had become so accustomed to the well dressed, beautifully coiffured people around me that I took them for granted, and resented their conformity. The reputation for style the French enjoy didn't happen by accident, and to achieve and then maintain it the had to make a few rules, and glare at the non conformists until they withered with shame and disappeared. For the higher cause, as they say.
I'm not saying that everyone dresses in the height of fashion, but you would be (un)lucky to meet someone on the street who doesn't look neat and tasteful.
And the thing is, when you do let everyone wear whatever they like, you end up with a nation of people who think that popping their collar is classy.
So I'll keep doing my thing, and continue to find the Parisian conservatism frustrating, but I'm trying to bear in mind that I've been here five months now, and I'm still yet to see a single g-string riding the bulge of ass that didn't make it into the jeans.
And for that I should be thankful.