A year abroad student’s guide to a culturally confused wardrobe

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About a month into my second year abroad placement, I found myself inside an independent boutique in the centre of Limoges, France, looking through coloured leather jackets. I usually prefer to shop alone, but this time I was with a Spanish girl who I met on this placement. As I was looking through the clothes rails, she asked me ‘so what sort of clothing do you usually wear?’ I regret to inform you that I could not answer the question. Since September 2020, I have lived in three countries. Each one has had some form of impact on my personal style, to the point where I can no longer determine how I usually dress.

Even though my degree has caused me to move quite a few times and adapt to my surroundings, this is not limited to year abroad students. Dance classes aside, I had never worn flared trousers before coming to Durham, but they have since become a staple in my wardrobe, and I am sure that I am not the only one who has experienced this. However, a lot of my go-to items are not your classic Durham clothing, such as my red leather knee length pencil skirt, which I proudly wear to my 9am lectures, usually with some sort of sparkly jumper. Yes, one would say I overdress.

Not the Sicilians though. After arriving in Sicily and making friends with a lovely group of Italian girls, I did notice one thing in particular. Their version of ‘casual’ is not remotely similar to the version of ‘casual’ we in Durham know and love. In Sicily, lunch with the girls is not really a jeans-and-a-nice-top situation. It is a lot more nuanced than that. In the UK, the default seems to be finding a way to dress down your nicest clothing so that you can wear it during the day. In Sicily, the opposite seems to be the case. Whilst I would previously wear trainers and lighter makeup to meet my friends during the day, in Sicily I found myself swapping this out for heels, and my standard dark lipsticks did not feel quite as out of place in a café in Catania as they would do in Flat White. In reality, I do not think being in Sicily changed the way I dress all that much. I was simply able to be unapologetically myself in the way I dress and not seem overdressed in a floor length skirt to go out for a coffee.

When it comes to French fashion, many people throw around the term ‘a certain je ne sais quoi’ to describe the French girl vibe of which we in Britain are quite envious. After a month of living in France, I believe I indeed ‘sais quoi’. I refer to it as the balancing act. The French seem to teeter delicately, or balance, on the line between done and undone at all times. And yes, that is an equally unhelpful statement, I know. What I mean is that each look created is in equal parts done and undone. For example, if you put effort into your hair, you keep the makeup neutral. My favourite way to style the balancing act is black jeans and heeled boots (the ‘done’ half), with a button up shirt that I’ve hastily tied at the waist (the ‘undone’ half). In short, every part of the outfit has an opposite that completes it.

While I fully embraced how Sicilian girls seem to dress up, I did find myself pulling out the flared trousers on occasion, but going all for it with hair and makeup. Since mastering my French girl balancing act, I have figured out that my classic Durham flares work wonders with heeled boots and a button-up shirt. I am also no stranger to wearing a long flowing maxi-skirt (probably more adapt to coastal Catania) to walk around land-locked Limoges. All in all, the best answer I can give my Spanish friend to the question ‘how do you usually dress?’ is ‘culturally confused’.

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