Stan Smiths Round Two: The Link Between French Dress and Cultural Values
Do you guys remember when every single person in Paris was wearing Stan Smiths? It was like a game you could play, you’d go to a bar and instead of darts you’d play Count the Stan Smiths, and you’d have to stop around 20 because all the white-clad feet would just blend together and you’d lose count.
And I remember that being a pretty revelatory experience for me as an introduction to French fashion culture, one I’ve been thinking about ever since, because I really wanted Stan Smiths. Like, really. wanted. Yet I couldn’t get them, because everyone had them, and that would be breaking a Fashion Law.
So instead I bought Sambas, and then I had a conversation with a friend that went something like this:
Me: Hey, so I finally got those new Adidas I ordered!
Friend: Oh right, the Stan Smiths? Everyone has those.
Me: (offended) Ew, no, I know. I got Sambas.
Friend: But you didn’t get the Stan Smiths? That’s what everyone has.
We were having two different conversations - I would avoid buying a sneaker that had “saturated the market,” but for him, their popularity was a sign of their value - and neither of us was wrapping our minds around the other side. It was something I was going to think about a lot in the next few months as the Stan Smith phenomenon took full hold.
It’s not that I think that All French People Dress the Same or that there’s a lack of creativity in French fashion, generally - I’d have a lot of girls whose styles I really respect after me in a second - but I do think that outside of a certain upper echalons of ~fashion~, Parisian dress tends towards a certain conformity and sameness that is less visible in American philosophies of dress, as observed in major Northeastern cities and specifically New York.
In sum: In America, you’re supposed to be an individual. In France, you’re supposed to look good.
To put it simply: in the US, I’d say ballpark 50% of people “dress well,” in the sense that their clothes fit, they’re fashion-conforming within a two year margin, they Look Nice. The rest of the pie chart looks like this: those who dress for pure comfort, those who are fashion conforming within five to ten year margin, followed by those whose dress departs from the norm in a positive, forward way (“edgy”), and finally those whose dress is so forward to be unrecognizably good, voir “weird.”
In France, 85% of people dress well. They look nice. They are clean and presentable and stylish and good. This is where the image of the French Girl comes from. And this is my style home, because it is very safe, and very classic, and not weird at all. The other sides of the scale are similarly shifted. The rate of weirdos, non-conformists, punks, scene kids, goths, lolitas, hipsters, hippies, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum is statistically much smaller.
So this comes with a few disclaimers: I’m referring to a small subset of people in terms of age, socioeconomic status, subcultural appartenance. It wouldn’t be fair if I told you that every French middle school girls owns a pair of shorty Uggs and and an Eastman backpack because, hello, so did we (Jansport FTW tho). And I think trends, like Stan Smiths, can “go viral” and become overly saturated in a similar way in the US.
And, of course, if Americans are supposed to be “individual” in our dress, if we’re supposed to be showing off our personalities, then it mysteriously turns out that all our personalities are pretty darn similar.
My favorite meme right now are Starter Packs, like those images with a handful of objects and a title along the lines of, “Kid who reminds the teacher that there’s homework.” They’re always eerily accurate in a way that makes you wonder if we’re not all living arms of the same Matrix; somehow the more specific category the scarier it is. It sometimes takes a long look to realize that you’re looking at a meme made by a specific age group in a specific era and within a certain context; “long-haired horse girl” wouldn’t be dressed the same in the 80s and she wouldn’t exist in a lower-middle-class suburb.
What we can draw from Starter Packs is a confirmation, sometimes unsettling, that all of our clothing choices are 1) highly informed by context; 2) exist, inescapably, within a context; 3) trend, necessarily, towards similarity and social identity far more strongly than they do towards individuality and personal expression. No matter what country we live in, and how much we’d like to pretend otherwise.
But if consumer choice leans more toward sameness in general, French dress trends to place more value on that trend-towards-the center than American dressers. And I don’t think it’s really quite enough to stop that question short at “There’s more social value here in looking good.” There’s a politeness to it. “Dressing well is a display of good manners,” said maybe Tom Ford ??? and probably someone else sometime. I think it’s like vaguely a Barthesian kind of thing - in which fashion is a physical manifestation of social conformity and alignment with a given norm.
French culture is inherently oriented towards politeness, conformity, and propriety in a way that American culture simply isn’t. From the day I got here people have been trying to tell me about some American Cowboy Myth, and I’ve been trying to talk them out of it (sometimes literally because I think glamorizing the Wild West is weird and racist).
Now that I’ve been here for a while, I can’t decide if I’ve just decided that they’re right (not about the cowboys), or if I’ve finally swallowed the hard pill. Because I think that this is something that’s at least a tiny little bit present in American culture - individualism and subtle disrespect for authority. It’s the reason that Americans find the French rude and the French find Americans boisterous and uncultured. We’re just not getting each other, guys! It’s all gonna be okay!
Bref, what this means for clothing: if your fringues are a sign of participatory identity (they are, and so are mine) then it makes sense for a culture that places greater value on conformity to find itself “following the trends,” so to speak, in the sense of aligning one’s dress to a more widely-understood cultural definition of style. In a country where “incivility” is an insult you can hurl on a bus, looking presentable in a familiar way literally becomes a question of good Old World manners.
That's why I was so offended that someone would assume that I got the same sneakers as everyone else. From day one, Americans raised to think of ourselves as different. I've got inside confirmation that this goes down to the school systems, kindergarten, how you draw a tree. French teachers will tell you that trees aren't pink. We get a lot of positive attention for individuality from a young age (that festers into an individualism isn't exactly beneficial to the political good of the country as a whole, so don't read me wrong.) Let's be very clear - Americans are blind ol' trend followers like everyone else, see above point about Starter Packs. We just really like to pretend we're not.
So to come back to the original anecdote, I think the reason that Stan Smiths became such a massive Thing can be traced right back down to the fact that everyone had them. They were a simple, minimalist shoe that got the endorsement of Phoebe Philo around right at the time that simple and minimalist was the height of fashion. Or, more accurately, the height of fashion was being way too cool to care. It became, in the end, a symbol of wearing what everyone else was wearing - which was exactly the point.
And for the record, I eventually got over myself. I do own and wear Stan Smiths. But only because my sister got me them as a birthday present so I'd shut up about them. :) <3