Thursday, January 17, 2013

Learning to dress like a Belgian

It's soldes periode in Belgium—that's “sales period” to you (that is, fellow English speakers) and me. Twice a year, in January and July, shops are allowed to offer big markdowns on last season's merchandise. It's actually forbidden by law to have major, storewide sales at any other time of year. I'm not sure about the reason for this; my husband says it's to protect small businesses who can't afford to offer the same discounts as the big retailers.

In any case, the beginning of the soldes is always marked by the kind of shopping frenzy we usually see in the US on the day after Thanksgiving. This year, I joined a Flemish friend who'd taken the day off work for shopping on the first day of the sales in our home town of Hasselt. The discounts can range anywhere from a negligible 10% to a more tempting 70% off original prices.

And yet, this year I found very few clothes (of course we're mostly talking about clothes here) that I wanted to buy, even on sale. Fashion lately seems to have taken a turn for the worse. Much, much worse. High-necked granny blouses, loud geometric prints straight from the 70's, skirts and pants designed to emphasize the least attractive parts of the female anatomy. Colors are either screaming bright or dull as mud.

My gorgeous, slender, blonde friend lucked out and found a dress that actually flattered her figure in a pretty, tastefully patterned fabric. At half off. She always seems to know just what to buy. I think it's a Belgian thing.

One thing I've noticed since moving here is that Belgians are generally much better dressed than Americans. All right, I'll admit it—that's not saying much. Americans are universally acknowledged to be among the worse dressed people on earth. (Followed closely by the Dutch, Australians and Brits.) You can always spot the American in Europe: baggy jeans, sneakers, sweatshirt, backpack. All things that no Belgian over the age of 12 would be caught dead wearing in public.

Another thing I've noticed is that Belgians have no problem wearing the same outfit two days in a row. When he gets home from work, my husband takes off his office clothes, hangs them up, and changes into jeans. The next day, he wears the same shirt and pants again. He said he was taught to do this as a child. When he came home from school, he hung up his school clothes and changed into play clothes.

When I was a kid, wearing the same outfit two days in a row was literally inconceivable. We had one girl in our class who never, ever wore the same outfit twice. (I've always wondered what she did with her clothes after they'd been worn once, never to reappear on her person again.) Of course, that's an extreme example, but my teenage classmate had clearly achieved the ultimate goal: new clothes every day.

The Flemish approach to clothes is much more practical, sensible and economical. As far as I can tell, they tend to buy fewer items of clothing and wear them more often. The typical American has closets stuffed with clothes, most of which get worn a couple of times and then forgotten—to be replaced the following season with a bunch of new clothes. 

So, in a way I'm glad I didn't find anything to tempt me during the sales. I'm trying to buy clothing the Flemish way: occasionally and with care. After all, I don't have to have a different outfit every day of the week. What's more, I can wear the same dress to two different parties, even if some of the same people might see me both times. Here in Flanders, no one will be shocked.

(A version of this post appears on the website for Fans of Flanders, a new English-language TV program aimed at expats living in Belgium. I'm honored to be one of their regular guest bloggers!)


  1. Hi, I really like your blog. I am an American who feels at home in Belgium. One thing a friend of mine says is 'never wear white socks'. I was informed that bad things might happen. So I never wore white socks out of fear...

    Anyhow, I would like to move to Belgium at some point but I have complicated health issues and I can only work part time.

  2. Thanks for a helpful post. I'm going to be visiting Belgium in October and hope to not stick out like a sore thumb as an American. Your tips are much appreciated.