Wednesday, August 06, 2008


In one of my favorite moments on "Seinfeld" (not the best way to begin a post, but bear with me) Estelle Costanza learns that Donna Cheng, the Chinese woman who'd given her marital counseling over the phone, is in fact not Chinese, but a white, American woman whose family name was shortened from Chengstein. Estelle decides upon learning this to get a divorce after all, screaming, "I'm not taking advice from some girl from Long Island."

This scene came to mind while I was reading the comments to a Sartorialist shot featuring two pretty young French girls in Paris. Photos on this site often garner comments about how much more chic Europeans are than Americans. Here, we have: "Oh, the allure of the French woman. So relaxed yet so put-together," as well as, "So unfussy, you don't see American girls look that effortless." Oh, and, "American young women need to take more pride in being girly without trying too hard."

Until finally someone comments that she went to high school with one of the girls... in the States. One if not both of the girls is from L.A.

Looking at the picture knowing that the girls are probably from the States, what does this change? Can we now admit that their clothing is pleasant but nothing special? I, at least, noticed, but only after their Americanness was pointed out, that the brunette in particular looks like she plays some kind of sport, or did not long ago. That's not very French. The blonde's necklace strikes me as American--Tiffany's or that look, at any rate. They start to look really American, both of them, once you consider the possibility. To be fashionable, don't change your clothes, just put a caption under photos of yourself that suggest you might be French.

I think I've located the root of this confusion. In Paris, you see three types of young women: French, American, and ambiguous. The ambiguous are well-off or at the very least abroad-studying American college girls who would rather die than be caught wearing white sneakers and a fanny pack while abroad (although now that hipster is in, perhaps these can be worn ironically). These young ladies are always thin, always with the requisite disheveled hair (blown-dry at home, but not in Europe!), and often with a scarf and cigarette (because it's France!). When I studied abroad, this look was so well-represented in my UChicago group that everyone assumed we were British. To me, the girls in the Sartorialist shot are the very definition of this type of ambiguity.

Every last one of New York's let-me-see-how-many-knick-knacks-I-can-buy-with-your-silly-play-money tourists looks noticeably European (or Israeli, Japanese...), an amazing feat when you consider that at this point, the closets of the whole First World are filled entirely with purchases made on lower Broadway. It's safe to say that not one of our tourists from abroad is trying to look American. As an American, I find this all a bit upsetting. Is this all about Bush? Would an Obama presidency make America chic again? Was America ever chic? I'm now picturing an image from the textbook I taught from last year of French schoolchildren in 'American-style' clothes, meant I'd imagine as a point about American cultural hegemony. The kids were indeed in jeans, but did they ever look French. No caption could have told me otherwise.


Withywindle said...

Do you try to look American? If so, what does it involve?

Matt said...

I haven't read Uncouth Nation, but I doubt America was ever really chic. Admired at times for various reasons, but never chic. (Though James Dean might be a good place to start looking to prove me wrong.)

Anonymous said...

If you consider sportswear chic, then, yes, Americans were and are chic.

Phoebe said...

Withywindle: I don't try to look American, it comes naturally.

Matt: I've never heard of Uncouth Nation, but I take it America doesn't come out too well.

Anon: Sportswear as in less fancy designer labels, or as in Nike?

Anonymous said...

Origins of sportswear--feminist, comfortable, democratic, not dictated by Dior. So, pants, shirtwaists, car coats.
The look came in part from clothes for actual sports, and some sportswear was always expensive (so there were always knock-offs), but it was never as expensive as couture. And yes, Nike is a good example of a globalized American trend. Jeans might be the ultimate American-born phenomenon of practical chic. I don't know if Mr. Levi was American-born, but I'm pretty sure his pants were.

Matt said...

Actually, Uncouth Nation has the subtitle "Why Europe Dislikes America." It's a history of European anti-Americanism, which supposedly is strongly shaped by an underlying view of the US as uncouth, too young for any real culture. Without culture, I'd assume, there's no fashion for Europeans to emulate.