February 25, 2011KR OnlineEssay

Paris Fashion Notes from Monsieur Sans-Chic, or Lookin’ for a Look in the Land of Good Lookin’, with a Short Diatribe in Defense of the Man-Purse

As a man of the mind, I have always disdained fashion. So superficial, n’est-ce pas? So much fluttering about ephemeral frippery. What falsity, this passion for surface, when essence is what counts.

This stance has served me quite well, given that I have no fashion sense to speak of. No style, no swank, no flair, no dare, no flash, no dash, no jaunt or flaunt. No gift for garb. At all.

I travel regularly from my home amid the rustling cornfields of central nowhere, Ohio, to the heel-clicking streets of Paris, France, where I regularly sojourn grace à my wife Jane, a French professor. And, until this last trip—we are here for a year, residents, ex-pats, quasi-insiders, locals of a sort—I considered fashion beneath me, or out of my reach, which amounted to much the same thing. I wore my rumpled tan (beige?) Dockers, my creased red (maroon?) Kohl’s polo, and my smudged sort-of blue (teal?) spring/fall jacket. Or some version of same, every day. Sturdily shod in my black schoolteacher shoes, I eschewed couture.

To a hapless sans-chic like me, the case against fashion comes easy. The need to look stylish is rooted in lack, in some primal fear, hein? Sensing our own emptiness, grasping for identity in a world that seethes around us, feeling alone and fragile, we face each day by opening the drawer and covering ourselves up.

Clothing is a kind of soft armor. From ripped jeans to Vuitton bags, we crave style for reasons both social (the need to belong) and psychic (the need to mask our sense of inadequacy). Psycho-socio-economic, too: buying something new always gives us a jolt of pleasure. Left to ourselves, we feel incomplete. It’s as if humanity evolved with a design flaw—the inability to find well-being—and thus an unremitting need to compensate. One way: by looking cool.

To complete the analysis, I would suggest that it all goes back to some original fault. Pushed by ill-defined dissatisfaction—an urge to have more? be more? be cool?—Adam and Eve opened the drawer, as it were; discovered vanity, discovered shame . . . and felt they had to get dressed for the eternity of their banishment. (Whereupon Eve said unto Adam: “We’re going out and you’re wearing that?”)

So the human condition left us with self-consciousness, and mirrors. And left me here in Paris, this year, looking at all those deftly looped scarves and interesting boots and thigh-length coats sweeping by on the street, and looking at my own reflection in a storefront window, and thinking, “Dork.”

When you’re living in Paris, it’s hard to pretend you don’t care how you look. Yes, it turns out that even Monsieur Sans-Chic wants to make his small statement. I’m not talking about elegance: true design sense is beyond me, plus I’m certifiably color-blind. (The metro map, with its tangle of lines in browns, reds, and greens, is particularly frustrating.) For me, it comes down to that founding curse of self-consciousness. Aware that I’m always skating close to the brink of embarrassment, I want to fit in (but, well, distinctively).

Out on the sidewalk, I have this sneaking suspicion that everyone can tell I’m American, even before I speak and betray myself. I now own a French jacket (black), a French fleece (black), even French shoes (black). OK, I’m also wearing my Dockers. But it’s more than that. Maybe it’s the way I carry myself, as if body language were just another frequency on a spectrum that also includes the spoken word. So I maneuver in the crowds, step around what the dogs left, jaywalk along with everyone else, hustle down the metro stairs, push onto the train, grab a pole, jostle and lurch, exit, head for the escalator—just like anyone, but with a foreign accent.

My personal style might be described as “American nondescript.” But it seems that American nondescript stands out here, the way a French man-purse would stand out in the Kohl’s checkout line. (And, yes, we will come to man-purses later.)

In an effort, not to transform myself (impossible), but to better understand my foreignness, and maybe make some adjustments, I’ve begun to notice fashion accents. Accessories make a difference: the scarves (which are worn in all seasons, by both sexes), the boots (on women, also in all seasons), and the occasional surprising choice of a hat. Cool. Even very cool.

I came here with a scarf and bought another. I’ve tried them out with my version of 11th-arrondissement bo-bo, or bourgeois bohemian: the French scarf (long, blue, flâneur casual) hanging over a sports-jacket (no coat) and jeans. I use the requisite European loop (double the scarf, drape around neck, and slide the open ends through the closed one). This helps, I suppose, although it’s pretty basic. I doubt I could pull off any of the other scarf-wearing styles: piled and fluffy, elegant disarray, faux-ascot, bundled-against-the-wind, single-knot droop, shoulder-flip, not to mention the variations on the loop (tight, loose, studiously careless).

I’ve also—and now we’re getting into seriously self-conscious territory—bought a hat. We were in Deauville, on the coast of Normandy, and on an impulse I got a Navy blue woolen fisherman’s cap, sort of a captain’s job, peaked on top, with an embroidered black ribbon running around the base and curving across the front of a stubby brim. Jane insists that it looks sharp rather than clownish. I haven’t decided whether I dare bring it home to Ohio.

Distinctive. Yes. Except. Well, I have in fact seen a few other hats of this sort, all worn by guys who are about eighty years old. Still, I’m stickin’ with it. If it doesn’t peg me as a tourist, there’s a chance that it qualifies as a look.

Not all noticing leads to chic, mind you. I’ve also noticed the not-so-cool, because, believe it or not, Paris too has its paunchy middle-aged guys who go for cheap and functional. They wear what looks to be a tan (beige?) fisherman’s vest, and it’s not because they’re affecting an outdoorsy Orvis look. No, these are men without affectation. You see them everywhere, scarfless, hatless, with those faded, comfortable, loose-hanging beige (tan?) vests, festooned with zippered pockets, pockets low, pockets high, zippered pockets everywhere.

Why? They’re not donning waders to cast for trout in the Seine. I finally realized: the pockets. The average urbanite, for whom every outing is a small expedition, and who doesn’t have a car where he can leave his things, needs to carry his keys, his wallet, his change, his metro pass, his cell phone, maybe an address book, a memo pad, a handkerchief, who knows what else. Some people tote plastic bags—I often do, for example, throwing in my newspaper and a book for the metro, along with a city map. (I use a bag from the Paul Beuscher music store . . . suggests artiste and sets me apart from, you know, your basic BHV department store shopper.) But if you don’t want to carry a bag (or a man-purse, and we’re getting to that), you can opt for the gilet multipoches, which is the official name for the multi-pocket vest of the sidewalk-wader. At least, you can if you’re a middle-aged guy with no pretensions. And you can fill the pockets to your heart’s content. I’ve seen those babies bulging, as the guy strolls along, completely unself-conscious and, by the way, fitting right in. Nobody stares; he may as well be wearing a scarf.

And so, what about the man-purse? Go ahead, compatriot, laugh. But first ask yourself: Why the need for this bullying har-har? Could it be the age-old American inferiority complex in the face of Europe’s glories? They have the cave paintings and cathedrals, the epics and empires, the best-running trains and liveliest cafes, the most historic and cultured cities, layered with art and architecture that we can only peer at in our textbooks. And, to get down to primal quotidian stuff that hits us where we hunger, France in particular has that universe of mouth-watering cheeses (whereas the cheese which bears our proud American name tastes like orange chemical) and those magnificent loaves of bread, crusty, toothsome, long as a billy club.

In belittling Europe (the home of our own ancestors, in many cases), are we perhaps compensating for some self-doubt? Lashing out at a father figure who, we secretly suspect, we can never quite equal? Could it be that we swaggering Americans, with our shotguns and baseball bats, actually have baguette-envy?

Contemplating the man-purse, consider the ineluctable anthropological truth that men love containers, from tool boxes to holsters, from roll-top desks with their cubbies ranged in tiers to, yes, multi-pocket fishing vests. We always have; we always will. We like our gear; we take pleasure in stowing our equipment. (Sure, it’s all sexual; don’t be squeamish.) I would argue that all of these boxes and cases, pockets and pouches, casks and flasks, holders and slots and dividers and drawers, exist on a continuum that also includes the cavalryman’s cowhide saddle bag and the medicine man’s magic deerskin pouch, the dop kit and suit carrier, the attache case, the briefcase, the knapsack and rucksack and messenger bag—all manly enough, for sure, no?, and all versions of what you snickeringly call a man-purse. A sack, slung about our shoulders or loins, to carry our stuff.

Would it help to change the name? It’s not a purse at all, actually. The term in French is sac d’homme—suggestive enough, I would think, for the most macho among us to get behind. Why not embrace it in all its masculinity? Call it, say, the guy-sack or, better yet, the hombre-bag.

I have owned four of them, including a Delsey “reporter’s bag” whose black synthetic surface faded in the sun before I had discovered all of the pockets for pens, phones, and pads. Carrying it across Paris, I could play at being a foreign correspondent.

And what is fashion if not an opportunity to play? And to play, specifically, at being foreign, something other than ourselves. A cowboy, a diplomat, a mountaineer. A bo-bo.

“Loosen up,” Jane tells me when I wince at a purple shirt. It’s the same as when she looks over at me on crowded, rumbling Line 9, clutching the pole with one hand, holding my Paul Beuscher bag with the other, and imitates my “morose metro face.” Relax. Smile. Open up. Next time, put on your cute captain’s cap and bring your sac.

In other words, dress up and don’t worry about it. Don’t take “essence” so seriously. That’s part of the American hang-up, isn’t it—our endearing idealism, the need to unwrap ourselves, and unwrap the world, in search of authenticity. We’re always yearning back to the yeoman virtues that stood us apart from corrupt, fashionable Europe. We want the purity of naked, untainted dirt. We’re still thinking about Eden. Whereas Europe—war-scarred and worldly wise—has long been “postmodern” (to use the fashionable term), understanding that “the real me” doesn’t really exist, and is in any case not a very useful concept. Fashion superficial? What else is new?

So Monsieur Sans-Chic now loops his scarf, shoulders his hombre, and dons his hat, hoping, as he heads out into the street, that the brim juts out at a good angle. Half-believing that he has found, not himself, and not even a credible persona, but a day of lookin’ just fine.

And trying to keep embarrassment, his natural condition, at bay.