Teens, jeans and comfortable shoes

The branches outside my window are naked and leaves on the hill across the street are golden and orange. L’viv Fashion Week has wound down, and it’s time to think about my winter wardrobe.

Forty years ago when I visited Europe, a young man in a youth hostel said to me, “I can tell you’re American because you wear jeans and white athletic shoes.” I did not correct the speaker on the North American label, nevertheless he was right. Backpacking Americans and Canadians used to wear jeans and athletic shoes as a sort of uniform at a time when no Europeans did. We stuck out.  Well, not only have we traded in our backpacks for computer cases, we stick out no longer in jeans and running shoes.

The backpack is now a money belt, and the jeans are a few sizes larger, but the fashion statement remains, 40 years on. Photo: Bill Pupchek

When I was preparing for my research and teaching experience, I received this advice from the Fulbright handbook for Ukraine: “Ukrainians dress with care, pride, and a sense of fashion and personal style. Fashion turns over quickly but professionals rarely wear jeans.” That advice matched my observations both in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. So when I arrived in L’viv, I was not prepared for the degree to which people of all ages have adopted the same casual style I sported as a teen.

This fashion situation affected Zachary and Adam more than me, I suppose, because their mother was still trying to tell them what to wear. I had refused to pack more than one or two t-shirts with English phrases.  I let “Syracuse” pass, as well as “Lakeshore Band,” “Lake Norman Cross Country,” and “Fulbright.” Still, almost every article of clothing we brought is plain. Little did we know that few, if any, young people wear anything but t-shirts with English-language slogans. Some of the slogans have grammar trouble and some use words (even profanity) in novel ways–often in ways that make no sense to a native English speaker. Nevertheless, a t-shirt with an English slogan on it seems to be a status symbol in the youth fashion circles of L’viv.

Way back in August, we were excited about the news that Adam and Zachary would be attending a school that required uniforms; they were supposed to wear suits and ties with dress shirts and dress shoes. Somehow, though, after the second day of school and several early-morning tussles, it became clear that black jeans and soccer shoes were the grassroots-dictated uniform for male students over the age of 10. (Dress shoes will re-emerge in the winter because winter boots for men look a lot like  “Beatle boots.” So while I have bought Adam very nice lined boots, I have given up trying to find wool dress pants or cords that he will wear. We’re still looking for boots for Zachary.)

School uniforms? That’s Adam in the white shirt. Wearing no jacket is even more rebellious than wearing jeans! Photo: Bill Pupchek

I have already mentioned the high, high heels that half of the fashionable young women sport on their walks through town. I am greatly surprised that I have seen only one ankle turned on the cobblestones in the past two months. The other half of the young women wear jeans and either running shoes or boots. I have not found a place among the fashion conscious Ukrainian professionals who insist on wearing high, high heels, and will not be finding one any time soon. My wardrobe these days always starts with comfortable walking shoes, and I work up from there. For a while that meant Easy Spirit sandals. Now it means Land’s End ankle boots. These will give any interested fashionistas vapors, so my solution is my extremely long winter coat.

I must admit that I would like one of the wool coats that women in L’viv have started to wear in the cooler temperatures. The coats are as unique, various and flattering as designer dresses. Many feature elaborate appliqués or buttons, and special stitching, tailoring or seam details. And the fur has come out in coats, collars, handbags and boots. The women in L’viv certainly illustrate the style and personal flair that the handbook prepared me to expect. Strange… I haven’t seen any shops where women my age can find such items.

Ok, so I fit right in at church. Photo: Bill Pupchek

Then  again, of course, wearing something like that would call attention to my fashion (non)sense rather than communicate conformity. So for now, my Land’s End boots will be matched with jeans, sweater and raincoat on non-work days, and a nice suit on class days (nobody look below the knees!) Maybe I’ll get creative with earrings, if the temperature doesn’t dip enough to make them too cold to wear.


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