Before I came to spend so much time in le fin fond de l’Ariège (‘back-end-of-beyond’ to you) I subscribed to the general British view that being well groomed and chic came naturally to the French.
Not so. Frankly, looking as though you spend time studying the fashion pages forms no part of anyone’s life round here. Well, we’re a small country town here, so it’s scarcely surprising: but things don’t seem so very different in the bright lights of the department’s capital Foix (pop. 10,000), or the one Big City, Pamiers (pop. 19,000).
What’s surprised me though are the clothes worn by those people in service industries whose work brings them into contact with the general public. In the UK, working for a bank, building society or even Marks & Spencer means that you’ll be fitted out with a uniform featuring a smart blouse or shirt at the least. And men will be wearing ties. School teachers don’t wear uniform of course, but their dress code requires them to be ‘smart-casual’ at the least, and yes, ties for the men.
Little of that applies here. The only men I’ve ever seen wearing ties in France have been politicians or top businessmen making their mark on the TV evening news. And the assistants in any pharmacy are as smart and carefully made up as the immaculately turned-out women who make me feel so inadequate as I pass the beauty counters in British department stores. Neither of these groups represents the norm.
Calling into the electricity board recently we were greeted by a man whose T shirt indicated he might recently have been gardening. Bank workers grab any old top and jeans before going into work. The teacher who came with her class to the library the other day even had ripped jeans. And of course her pupils were casually dressed too.
So it’s not surprising that when my friends call and spot the school photos of my grandsons, smart and smiling in their royal blue sweatshirts with neatly fastened ties beneath, they assume the boys frequent some rather posh private seat of learning. ‘Nah’, I reply. ‘Only the local school down the road’. Opinions are divided then. Some wish fervently that French children had to wear uniforms, to prevent the dreaded ‘designer-trainer syndrome’. Others are aghast at the dreadful deprivation of liberty that forcing the children to dress alike represents.
I’m not bothered either way. But it’s one of the things that we notice as we share our time between England and France. Vive la difference!
* Mufti, refers to ordinary clothing, especially when worn by one who normally wears, or has long worn, a military or other uniform.