I vividly remember my first impression when I stepped out onto a street in suburban Adelaide for the first time: “Why is everyone wearing pijamas here?”
Ok, this may seem a bit harsh. But a change from image-conscious Moscow to a super relaxed summery Adelaide felt like a fashion shock to me. South Australia was getting its share of the February heat, and the streets were filled with baggy t-shirts (sometimes featuring marks and even holes) and flip-flop beach shoes. It was hard to imagine people would even own the shorts I was seeing!
Therein lies the rub: what was I to do with my kitten heels (the only pair of shoes I brought from Moscow) and the elegant clothes I wore to high school back home? We can argue that a colder climate predisposes itself to a more fashionably conscious society. After all, the beautiful coats and boots can only be worn if weather stays way below 35 degrees Celsius! Still there are summers in Moscow too – and in Paris, New York and Milan. Yes, I think my shock was justified.
Russians’ priorities about image are actually completely opposite to what a Westerner might be used to. An Australian will put money aside for a house, then go after a nice car, and only after the big things are sorted, go after the designer clothes. Russians’ self-image would not allow them to leave the house unless they are presented impeccably. (If you walk through a metro station in St Petersburg, you’ll struggle to find a woman who is not wearing heels or is not dressed up to impress.) Thus, with any available money, Russians would first take care of their clothes in order to make the optimal impression: if you look like a million bucks – that’s all that matters, because that’s all people see and remember! Then they would think about buying a nice car, and once that’s done the house comes into the picture. If you think about it, it makes sense – the first impression tends to be the strongest one. No-one can see what kind of apartment you got dressed in, but if you look great, you’re certainly more likely to get noticed, right?
While trying to fit into a new society though, I did acquire a pair of cheap shorts from a discount store. (As immigrants with no job yet, the family funds were limited.) Surprisingly, it didn’t take too long to get used to them, although I found myself feeling somewhat naked for the first few days. And after a week or two in the Australian sun, having settled in Glenelg a short walk from the beach, the freedom of clothing felt oddly liberating and almost intoxicating. It wasn’t even so much to do with the clothes themselves. It was the culture they represented: relaxed, unhurried beach fun, complete with breaking waves, flies, wind and daily sunburn.
Today I find myself wanting to marry up freedom and style – and keep it sun smart too! 😉 Maybe I feel a need to combine some image-conscious Russianness with a bit of laid-back Australianism. A little bit of vodka with the prawns doesn’t hurt, right? After all, it is our experiences that personalize our styles: the warmth and the freedom of the beach don’t need elegance and style sacrificed in their name. That way my sometimes conflicting immigrant soul feels like it strikes a little bit of balance between its two cultures.