Saturday, May 28, 2011

High heels and baby shoes

I used to be the girl who dressed in jeans and ratty t-shirts two sizes two big. I wore sneakers and hiking boots exclusively. I went to the hairdresser only twice a year, if that, and never knew what cut to ask for except "shorter." When I met my husband he saw potential nonetheless, and also saw me in a couple of flowing skirts that flattered my hips and evidently caught his eye. But, as a whole, he was mildly shocked at my so un-French lack of fashion sense or effort.

By the time we got to know each other well enough for him to comment on this -- which was early in the relationship because, well, he's French and not afraid to voice an opinion on such things -- I knew him almost well enough not to take offense.

"Why are you wearing that?" he asked earnestly and with mild distaste one morning as I got ready to go to work in an old, gray t-shirt that hung down past my hips. I wondered the same thing as I then looked in the mirror as if for the first time.

I soon learned that I couldn't defend my wardrobe to him and didn't want to anyway. The old computer geek t-shirts got reconverted as running clothes or tucked, for nostalgia's sake, into the back of the closet. I started to take my husband shopping because unlike every American guy I'd ever dated, he told me exactly what he thought of the clothes I picked up off the rack, and helped me find things that I felt beautiful in.

All this was new for me.

You see, I grew up in Seattle and went to high school in the 90s, and Kurt Cobain and his peers were sort of our anti-fashion icons. I wore flannel shirts that I "borrowed" for my dad or from my boyfriend, and slumped around in hiking boots and parkas. The best compliment I ever received was when I showed up at school wearing my dad's vintage tan suede jacket with an unbuttoned red plaid shirt underneath. "That is totally something Eddie Vedder would wear!" exclaimed my girlfriend, and was I proud.

I can't say I looked feminine back then but it felt better than the years of girlhood and preadolescence that I'd spent trying and failing to be "one of the girls," wearing the wrong kind of jeans, or my hair too short, or skirts when everyone else was wearing pants. In sixth grade, I and all the other girls bought green plastic Maybelline powder compacts at the drug store and spend the breaks between classes giggling in front of the mirror in the bathroom and patting makeup on as thick as we could. I felt like I could never put enough makeup on to hide the ungainly me that was trying to stick out.

Every once in a while I'd find something -- a flouncy shirt, a pale yellow sweater -- that made me feel good. Myself. And beautiful. But mostly shopping was painful self-doubt, where I'd stare at myself in the mirror in outfits that didn't fit my soul or my body and wonder just what was wrong with me.

It's the stereotype, yes, but I can't help but believe still that parisiennes just don't have this problem. This city is filled with put-together women who are stylish from head to perfectly polished toe. Since I grew up already feeling intimidated by all things clothes and accessories, I'm not worse off than I was before. Strangely, even, I'm gaining confidence now. Which runs me straight into an interesting paradox.

I get the feeling -- and please correct me if I'm wrong -- that when you become a mom in the US, you're supposed to stop worrying so much about your looks, already. You should be organizing play dates, not shopping for shoes. Forgetting the hairdresser appointment, and wearing a pony tail to the after-school soccer match. Things like pedicures are almost decadently Desperate Housewives, so don't even go there: what about the kids?

In France, on the other hand, or at least in Paris, the pressure is the opposite. After you give birth, you should get back to your pre-baby body, wardrobe, and mindset as quickly as possible. No one should be able to guess from looking at you that you're a mother. That means no giant mom-purses, no low-maintenance hair, and heaven forbid, no sneakers. And that may be fine for other Parisian moms, but it feels to me like it would be denying how much I've changed. I'm more stylish now than I was before le Petit was born, but I'm also more likely to be carrying baby wipes and band-aids.

Is it as extreme as all that? Maybe not. My particular experience certainly warps my perceptions. I'd be interested, however, to hear how other moms live these contradictions here, in the US, and everywhere else. (So feel free, if you wish, to tell me I'm completely nuts.)

Anyway, all this introspective introduction is to tell you that today I had the most remarkable fashion experience. I walked into a loft in Paris with my mother-in-law and Mademoiselle in tow. We were welcomed warmly, all three of us; there were moms and babies just like us everywhere, sitting on couches, playing on the floor. Toddlers toddled around. Infant slept in baby carriers. There was also a rack of brightly-colored dresses and tops in one corner of the room, and a couple makeshift dressing rooms. A photographer's backdrop was set up in the middle of a bright atrium. And in front of three tables set against the wall, professional makeup artists were ready to make us feel just a little more glamorous, and perhaps a little less tired, one mom at a time.

Mamanana, a web site I've blogged about before, was holding their first atelier d'essayage, and they'd invited moms of all shapes and sizes and with babies of all ages to try out their nursing wear. We would pick out outfits from their samples and later pictures would be posted on their web site to help other moms (who, you know, just might not have the same measurements as a typical fashion model) figure out what might look good on them, too.

Well, it sounds kind of cheesy, but I assure you this made me feel beautiful indeed. I found two dresses and two tops that I fell in love with. I'd brought along shoes from my closet for the pictures -- love-match shoes, the ones you never wear for anything real because you either can't or don't dare walk anywhere in them -- and they were perfect. For once, I felt like I might just compete with the parisiennes. I also felt completely comfortable stopping to nurse Mademoiselle, because everyone else was nursing, too.

Maybe that's half of beautiful is, anyway: feeling natural about it. That's pretty much what my mom's being trying to tell me all these years, anyway... and that's probably what I'll tell Mademoiselle some day, too.

[Since this reads like one big advertisement for Mamanana, I just wanted to clarify that 1) they didn't ask me to blog about it 2) that wouldn't be much of an investment if they had, since not many people actually read my blog and fewer still live in France or are currently breastfeeding, but 3) for participating in the atelier I did get a small gift and a gift certificate, which 4) I've already spent (and more) as a Mother's Day present to myself. Because, you know, I deserve it and all that.]


hush said...

About "living the contradictions" - yes, there probably is a stereotype about particularly disheveled-looking American mothers. The thing about American society is we have a ton of subcultures and tropes that defy generalization. We have communities where one of the norms is that moms still get their nails done, hit the gym, and keep their hair looking perfect no matter what. Then we have other communities where the moms wear workout clothes 24/7 but never do any actual working out. I'm somewhere in the middle, and my sense is that most American moms probably are, too.

Also, because I work in the industry I chose to, I need to look put together on my tight budget. I take good care of my clothes and accessories, and put some thought into my outfits. No scrunchies, ratty nails, and tired faces allowed if want to keep my clients.

Personally, and this is just me, I like to look tailored and well-groomed, whether I'm working or doing childcare. I feel that people treat me and mine a bit better if we look like we have some self-respect. In fact, when my mom comes to visit it bugs me that she wears workout clothes all the time - she has a closet full of lovely clothes and accessories, but chooses to take a more casual approach; then complains that she always gets bad service. Duh. ;)

Anonymous said...

I'd forgotten what happened to that suede jacket. And to think I could have looked like Eddie Vedder too!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@hush - "The thing about American society is we have a ton of subcultures and tropes that defy generalization." That is so true, and it's almost exactly what my husband and I were saying to each other last night; it's at the same time what I love most about the US and what distresses me about it -- I guess depending on whether I agree with the subculture I run into or not, if I'm honest with myself! Ha! So I'm wrong to generalize, I know, but the temptation is too strong sometimes.

"Personally, and this is just me, I like to look tailored and well-groomed, whether I'm working or doing childcare." - I feel that way now, too, because it's just another way of honoring yourself by taking care of yourself, like exercising or not eating junk. And I'm learning this new way to do it which doesn't become obsession with the parts of myself that aren't perfect. But I'm still learning. I wish you lived closer; I'd drag you shopping with me.

My mom (and she reads my blog, so I hope she doesn't take offense) has a whole closet full of elegant clothes and jewelry, but she rarely wears any of it now, at least not unless she's working. She's more of a t-shirt and jeans gal now, like I used to be, but I think she should dress up more often. Even at home.

@Dad - I loved that suede jacket, and I think I wore it until it disintegrated! It would probably still look stylish in Paris if I accessorized it differently, maybe not with an old flannel shirt, you know? Remember the red corduroy shirt I also stole from you?

Jac. said...

I've definitely fallen into the T-shirts and jeans stereotype of being a mother. My solution has always been accessories. A cute pair of shoes, a nice jacket/scarf combo - it doesn't matter much what I'm wearing underneath. Also, for those really rough days, I find that a bright lipstick and a pair of sunglasses always make me look and feel good, even if I look like death warmed over underneath the sunglasses.

I recall the grunge days! In fact, I saw Pearl Jam play just a few weeks ago. They are still excellent, but I left before the end because I was too tired. Sometimes aging is a b*tch.

My husband is also incredibly stylish and I take him shopping whenever I can. He owns way more clothes and shoes than I do and spends some time every weekend laying out his outfits for the week, including accessories (watches, cufflinks, ties) and shoes. I'm definitely the slobbier one in the relationship although being around someone who is so natty has helped me bring my game up substantially. Although, truthfully I think I would enjoy shopping and dressing up more if I was happier with my size and weight.

Cloud said...

I'm somewhere in between. I just don't have the time to shop as well as I used to, so I am nowhere near as stylish. But I do still make the effort. Also, in addition to becoming a mom, I've gotten older, and frankly, some of the current styles don't suit a woman of my age (I'm 39).

I work in science, so my colleagues don't expect much from me fashion-wise, but I feel better about myself if I think I look OK.

I have simplified my hairstyle a bit, and I go through periods when it has gotten straggly and I can't get into the salon- so I braid it.

the milliner said...

My wardrobe has been seriously lacking since DS was born 3 years ago. Like @cloud, I just don't have the time that I used to. Or the $$ come to think of it. Also, I used to do a lot of my shopping on business trips before DS was born as those trips were often to places like NYC, Paris, London and Vegas. Part of my job was/is trendwatching/shopping, so I'd be in the stores anyways. It was so easy to keep my wardobe interesting and stylish that way. But travel budgets (not to mention mine) have been cut so...

I agree with @hush that the secret is being tailored and well groomed. I wore my pre-DS wardrobe into the ground. And I even still wear a few maternity things that are very stylish and don't at all look like maternity clothes.

I finally bit the bullet and did a mini-wardrobe re-vamp as my clothes were actually wearing out. I re-visited a favorite store that stocks a lot of french and european labels. The staff there is so nice and as I was the only one in the store, I really got star attention. It was great and I ended up getting a lot of new reasonably-priced pieces which I know I will wear a lot. That whole experience of actually doing (pleasant) shopping and then having new clothes to wear does a lot to improve my mood and how I'm feeling about myself.

I guess I'm a bit all over the place in terms of how stylish I am from one day to the next. Quite frankly it's directly proportional to how much sleep I've gotten the night before and whatever else is going on. Many a day I'm in a t-shirt and the same-old, same-old pair of pants (don't wear jeans...yet). I try to throw on a patterned fitted cotton dress shirt to not be completely devoid of style. And sadly, my signature jewellery - 2 amazing rings, were stolen from my car and haven't been replaced. We're in Montreal, so we're probably half way on the continuum between the US and Paris. I'm a bit weary of either ends of the extreme - either dressing down so much that your self esteem may be taking a hit, or being so concerned all of the time about what you are wearing that you are keeping it up at the sacrifice of other more important things in your life.

Of course, a few may be comfortable in these extremes, but I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle in that what we wear affects how we feel about ourselves, but we have a handle on our priorities in life. And quite frankly, I think it's more work for some of us to be put together and/or stylish, just because some people have the knack/patience for it and some don't.

The biggest hit with me has probably been footwear. I've never been a huge heels wearer. But now even less so. Just too hard to juggle everything with DS.

Melba said...

I find I'm getting more and more stylish with age. Part of it is that as I've progressed in my career, the unofficial dress code for a person at my level has gone up a few notches. Its pretty much an expectation that I wear suits or equivalent. I don't often wear a matching suit (because that's so 90's, ha!) but usually am in a skirt or pants with a jacket and stylish blouse or top. Before I went back to work after having Annie I spent a small fortune on an update of my wardrobe.

And shoes, omg shoes. I love shoes. Unfortunately, I love expensive italian and spanish designer shoes.

And accessories. Scarfs, earrings, necklaces, etc. When I first started in my career I rarely wore a jacket, never earrings or necklaces, and I had one brown and one black pair of shoes.

Honestly I think that as I've gotten older and had children, I use style as a way to feel young and hip (just saying "hip" makes me sound a thousand years old, doesn't it?). So I'm opposite of the normal slip into less style that happens to moms. I went the other way.

I still insist on a low maintenance hairstyle though. I just don't have time for that. But it takes the same amount of time to put on a stylish top as it does to put on a t-shirt.