People-watching and first impressions: a fashion guide?

“People-watching” is one of my favorite pastimes. While I do not recall since when I have developed this habit, I brought it with me to Bucharest. In the past two and a half months, I have been observing people in cafes, parks, restaurants etc. As a stranger in a new culture, distant observations may be the most direct and non-intrusive way to familiarize with social norms. Nonetheless, I recognize that observations alone often lack contexts and may lead to misinterpretations of different norms. While I am watching other people, I realize that I am also being watched by others. My perceptions of others and their perceptions of me are first and foremost informed by appearances, such as ethnicity, physical features, clothes etc. Without any communications, perceptions of people may remain at this very first stage of an encounter. Moreover, first impressions sometimes can determine whether interactions between people will even occur. As a foreigner in Bucharest in past months, I found it important and intriguing to reflect on my experiences of first impressions, in particular, my perceptions towards the dressing style of young women.
I have been paying attention to how women around my age dress. For me, fashion, especially fashion for women, provides an overarching framework that often regulates women’s appearances and demeanors in the public space. A few weeks after first arriving in Romania, I started forming my own “theories” about young women’s dressing code in Bucharest. Many of them seem to embrace one particular style, which both highlights and disguises female sexuality. Many young women wear black tights and smoky makeup, which are stereotypical markers of female sexuality. Meanwhile, not many women are showing their skins: breasts, waist, and thighs are often covered. To discover more about the local fashion choices for young women, I strolled around several shopping malls. I was dismayed at most styles available. Many patterns and fabrics seem to be too “feminine” to me. Not a fan of laces or complicated small floral patterns, I found most clothes neither bold nor creative. I was thus disappointed for two main reasons: firstly, the limited options of “feminine” clothes do not provide comfortable, gender-neutral, or bold choices for women; secondly, many designs express female body and sexuality with a male gaze. These two preliminary reasons troubled me and unconsciously guided my first impressions of young women in Bucharest for a while.
Meanwhile, I was also being observed by others in the public. There could be many reasons why I sometimes felt that people were paying particular attention to me. It could be that I was the only non-white person on the bus or in the mall; it could be that I wore styles of clothes which are uncommon in Bucharest; it could also be that I looked like a confused tourist. What I know for sure is that I am “different” from people around me in Bucharest in many ways, such as my ethnicity, my dressing code etc. It is possible that my existence itself creates the disturbance to a familiar space enjoyed by the Romanian people. This mutual process of observations makes me think of the possible tensions between curiosity and feelings of alienation. Understandably, looking at me could be people’s way of expressing curiosities towards the unknown and the different. I share the similar kind of curiosity as I am observing young women’s dressing style in Bucharest. Nonetheless, I could not feel at ease when people were staring at me or giving me different kinds of looks. Being watched and observed certainly create discomforts in a public space where most people do not desire the attention. Moreover, in a public space that is familiar to Romanians but unfamiliar to me, and where I am the outsider among a group of people who seem to share more similarities, being watched creates additional feelings of alienation, exclusion, or even mild hostility.
After I spent more time in Bucharest, however, I began to discover young women who embraced drastically different styles from their peers. Once I saw a young woman talking to her friends in Romanian in a café. She was braless and wore neo-green eyeshades. These women I discovered seem to be transgressors of their own cultural space, outright rejecting the norm of dressing code. I suddenly felt strangely connected with them as they also appeared different and stood out from the crowd in some ways. A plus is that I really appreciate many of their styles. This new discovery prompted me to realize that within every culture itself, there are transgressors and dissenting voices. Initially caught up by my own feelings of being different, foreign and even unintentionally intrusive, I forgot to take a look at the mavericks in their own culture. Moreover, while these women were actively challenging the norms in the public space, it seems that I was only passively transgressing them.
I began to think about how I dress in different cultures: do I adopt different styles or norms when I am in China, the US, and Romania? Do my cross-cultural experiences let me challenge different imposing dressing frameworks? I discovered that my way of dressing often changed subtly after I stayed in a new place for a while. When I first came to the US, I was shocked but also intrigued by the informal dressing code in the public space. While yoga pants and hoodie are perfectly ordinary daily dressing options for women in the US, the same outfit is only appropriate for gyms in China. While I consider trench coat and dress shoes as causal in China, the same outfit signals “dressing-up” in the US. After struggling and navigating with the dressing norms in the US for a while, I decided to preserve some kinds of formality in the dressing code in China and take away the principle of comfort from the dressing code in the US. At the end of the program in Bucharest, I also began to appreciate fabrics and patterns I used to consider too “complicated” or “feminine,” such as lace and floral. While I still prefer to dress in a comfortable and more gender-neutral manner, I began to attempt incorporating lace and floral patterns in my outfit. I wonder if the privilege of traveling around allows me to discover the way of dressing I am most comfortable with, if cross-cultural experiences give me the fluidity to dabble in different styles of dressing while still being myself, and if I have begun to embrace the hybridity of different dressing codes.

People-watching and first impressions: a fashion guide?

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