What do you wear to go the gym/to work out? Do you care about having the latest fancy adapted workout clothes (special bike shorts? running pants?), fix your hair, put on makeup? Or are you like me, and sometimes make an effort, but also sometimes just throw on an old faded t-shirt and pants and are ready to go?
This question has sparked a small debate in my household and opens up discussions of clothes in general in France.
My significant other, who is French, is very interested in dressing well in general (and he does!). The gym is no exception - he will style his hair and would probably avoid wearing sneakers that were somehow not coordinated with his clothes.
My argument : Who cares? This is one place where how I'm dressed doesn't matter, I'm just going to sweat anyway.
His argument: There are other people there, therefore it is important!
This small example, while maybe not the same across the board for everyone, illustrates a larger issue of appearance in France that is different, in my opinion, than in the US.
In France dressing nicely is something you do for others. It may make you feel good and put together, but ultimately you're showing that you respect a certain social order, that you understand the social codes of how to present yourself physically.
We can contrast this with the opposite extreme: my American university students when I was teaching college-level French in the US. Being in a large university in the center of Illinois, where winters are very cold, it was pretty usual in the winter time to see students bundled up wearing essentially sweatpants and snow boots for most of the season. Students wore lots of hoodies and t-shirts and the general dress code from the Midwest (where I'm from originally) is pretty casual. People prefer comfort to style. This obviously doesn't apply everywhere in the US, and I'd say especially in big cities we can observe a different trend.
But I still think we have the mentality in America that how you are dressed is your own issue. If you decide to dress up, good for you, but it's more of an individual choice, and maybe reflects our more individualist mindset. Honestly, do you think about dressing up to go to the grocery store? Here I think twice about what I'm wearing before I leave the house.
In one of these college French courses I taught, I had a group of students who were going to France for a semester. One of the pieces of advice I gave them was to be careful of how they dressed, at least when they had to do something important or official (meeting at the bank, paperwork filing at the Préfecture). Because the fact of the matter is, if they went to an important meeting for paperwork, they would already have the difficulty of getting respect as young foreigners with limited French. If they added on top of that a sloppy or too casual appearance, it really could work to their disadvantage.
One thing that often strikes Americans coming to France is also the degree that men work on their appearance. Men's clothes (again I can attest this from my partner) in the US often run large and sizes are enormous. Here men tend to wear clothing that are more closely fitted, and shoes that are often sleek and pointy. My significant other remembers the days when he was in college, still living at home, and would spend his part-time job money clothes shopping with his friends in expensive stores.
The 'social order' is a powerful, implicit force in France that extends beyond clothing. When people are in public, there is a certain way you act and react to others. Your ability to follow social codes indicates your ability to understand your place in society as a whole, and most importantly, your ability to interact with society in a harmonious, productive way. This may sound a little extreme, but in practice it comes down to simple things. A previous post on the important of greetings and closings (Bonjour/Au revoir) is part of this social order, an official recognition showing that you know and observe the rules of society.
In the US I think we don't have quite as much of this. If someone is acting strange, or weird, or dressed oddly, he/she may get a reaction, but my sense is that it wouldn't be as strong as in France. On the contrary, uniqueness is often considered as positive.
I do think about how I dress and how I present myself in France. It's important, all the more since I'm a teacher and look young to many of my students. But the gym is one place where I won't give up my American ways.