Paris -- At the outbreak of the gulf war, Americans in Paris were concerned about appearing too American. One woman whose husband works at the U.S. Embassy here replaced her son's L. L. Bean jacket with a French-made coat.
Another woman was self-conscious about wearing tennis shoes with jeans. "Such an American look," she said.
But these wary Americans were overlooking something basic to the fashion scene on Paris streets today: The French have
become almost as fond of American-style clothes and labels as they are of their furs, dogs and cigarettes.
Levi's is by far the most prominent U.S. label here. There are "genuine" and "authentic" Levi's made in Belgium and, for more discriminating shoppers and at a higher price, there are Levi's "made in the U.S.A." Expect to pay at least $75 a pair for these, but that includes the heavy sales tax.
Sebago and Argus shoes are advertised in ways equating "Made in U.S.A." with quality and style.
Jackets and caps with U.S. sports (NFL logos are a favorite) or university insignias are almost as popular as the Motown music heard everywhere. Cowboy boots and denim jackets are common even in the most chic quarters.
But even wearing a few U.S.-style articles, a French person usually doesn't look like an American. It's sort of like the "What's Wrong with This Picture?" game: For instance, a man will wear jeans with wingtip shoes or brightly colored socks that match his shirt; a woman will wear a shawl over a Redskins jacket.
The main difference, though, between everyday attire in the United States and France is in formality. The French are always a bit dressier. Americans dress for comfort. The French seem to think it is better to look marvelous than to feel marvelous: more makeup, heels, patterned stockings, high-maintenance hair color and hairstyles. Hemlines, even in winter, are often at short runway heights. You see men in coats and ties out for lunch with their kids on Saturdays.
European versions of American casual wear are usually more luxurious and have finer detailing than the U.S. counterpart, similar to the way some U.S. designers have upscaled jeans and flannel shirts. One company, Chevignon, uses images of the American West and 1950s U.S. culture to sell its luxe, Ralph Laurenlike wares. (Genuine Ralph Lauren products are sold here, too.)
Beneath the American influences, though, is a sense of style and an attitude, rooted in history and tradition, that are very non-American.
Here are notes based on almost eight months of sidewalk and cafe observation:
* Scarves: From the silk scarf tucked into men's open shirt collars to fur-tipped mufflers, scarves are ubiquitous during the colder months. Most popular is a camel-colored scarf with black, red and white stripes at right angles; it's worn by at least half the occupants of any given bus or Metro car in winter.
* Shorts: You expect to see shorts in summer and you do, on men, women and children. But shorts are also seen during the winter. Some small boys are sent to school in knickers or shorts, and some women pair suede or corduroy shorts with tights for day wear.
* Black stockings: Women, who usually are barelegged here in summer, turn to stockings -- plain dark stockings, seamed and patterned stockings -- with a vengeance in winter. These are frequently the real things -- not pantyhose but stockings held up with garters. But such glamour has a price; they cost up to $60 a pair at the lingerie boutiques that grace almost every other block throughout the city.
* Furs: During the winter, it's common to see meat being sold still dressed in fur -- rabbits and even hindquarters of deer. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that fur coats for people are widely accepted. There are dyed and clipped inexpensive furs; luxurious foxes, minks and sables; flowing ankle-length coats; swinging stroller lengths and jackets. Not seen at all are sealskin coats, any coat that could be mistaken for a jungle cat or stoles (though shawls and other wraps are popular in cloth).
* Capes: It's not uncommon to see old men in navy blue berets and capes, or in caped overcoats (structured like overcoats but with large panels of cloth instead of sleeves). Few younger men wear capes. For women, it's the reverse. Old women wear traditional fur or cloth coats, but many younger women choose fur-trimmed hooded capes or warm, embracing wraps.
* Shoes: Few adults wear sneakers or running shoes. Maybe in the park Saturdays with the kids, but generally not for work and not for street wear. You see lots of women wearing simple flats -- often in brown or black suede. Few high heels during the day. With pants or jeans or occasionally even skirts, French women love ankle-high boots, often with a panel of elastic cut into the leather for comfort. (During a 15-minute period at a cafe window in Place de Victor Hugo in the posh 16th arrondisement, this writer saw about a third of the women outside wearing boots, about a third wearing flats and the remainder wearing pumps, high heels and, yes, sneakers. This was on an exceptionally cold, snowy day.)
* Children's clothes: Parents don't send kids out to play in scruffy jeans and souvenir T-shirts. You're much more likely to see matching outfits, embroidered shirts, dresses with smocking clothes that Americans would reserve for special occasions. It's nothing to see a 4-year-old digging in a sandbox in $100 leather shoes and a $150 dress.
* Slacks: Even on the coldest days, few women wear slacks. Dresses and skirts are almost de rigueur, but there are always a few women wearing tights under long tops or wearing black, don't-mess-with-me stretch pants. (Complaining about mothers double parking illegally outside a school, one American woman, seven months pregnant and wearing denim overalls, confided: "You can't say anything to a French woman in stretch pants.")
* Green. For women and especially for men, Paris is greener than the United States. Suits, sports coats, dress slacks, raincoats and overcoats are all seen in greens ranging from olive drab to Lincoln green to creamy pastels. Even street sweepers are outfitted in bright green jumpsuits, accessorized with bright green plastic brooms made to resemble the twig brooms that are still used in smaller towns.
But I've noticed more green in my new L. L. Bean catalog (it comes with international ordering instructions). Maybe that mock-T in light teal or cactus wouldn't look too American.