Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dress for Success

As I have written many times before, I can’t help but stand out in Armenia.  My height, fair skin, blue eyes, shaved head, and facial hair - they all mark me as a foreigner.  And then there are my clothes.

Many years ago, I was visiting Morocco and someone was trying to get me to buy clothes from his shop. His angle was that I stand out as a tourist and if I dressed like a Moroccan, I would blend in.  I laughed at him and declined the offer.  The same goes here – I could dress more like an Armenian but I would never be mistaken for one.  And while I am often mistaken for a Russian, I don’t really want to dress like them. 

Appearance has a lot of significance here and I have noticed that people take great pains to make sure they look good, even if they don’t have a lot of money.  Dirty shoes, holes in your clothing, frayed hems, wrinkles, and stains are all frowned upon. If someone’s shoes get dirty, you usually see him or her wipe the dust and dirt off immediately.  Wives and mothers tend to do laundry all of the time and it is remarkable to me how whites are kept so clean in a country that is very dusty and where people sometimes wear the same clothes for multiple days. Having said that, you do see people – including many in villages and the poorer people in towns and cities – who clearly don’t have the luxury to dress well so their poverty is even more evident.

While there are exceptions (as with everything) there are certain style elements that characterize the populace here.  I will start with men’s clothes since the cultural issues I have written about before make the women’s clothing styles interesting on a different level.

Colors - One thing you notice as you walk around Armenia is that people are very fond of black, gray and white clothing.  Even in the harsh summer sun, you often see guys in black – head to toe.  You also see people in all white and sometimes all red but black is the predominant color.

Logos - Lots of clothes here have logos on them.  Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Armani and Adidas are very popular.  Somehow I don’t think they are genuine, though, since a logo shirt may only cost about $5 and I am not aware of any two or more of the above making t-shirts together as you see here.

Tracksuits - Another common thing – which I think this was inherited from the Russians – is the tracksuit.  Whether they are copies of the official Armenia team suits or just a plain black Adidas one (or, as some of the knockoffs have – “Adibas”) they are everywhere.  Some guys at my gym will walk in wearing a tracksuit but then change into a different one to work out in. 

Shirts – there are three varieties that I see here – the form fitting tee shirt, the form fitting sweater and the more classic button front.  A lot of the tee shirts and sweaters have busy designs on them.

Pants – Jeans are pretty popular but they may have creases ironed into them.  Dress slacks (dark gray or black) are very popular and pretty much all that men in their thirties and up are seen in.  Tracksuit pants are also common without the matching jacket.  Even though it gets very hot in the summer, seeing men in shorts is rare.  Young boys may wear them, but by the time they are teenagers, not so much.  Near the house is fine, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a guy (not a tourist) walking in public in shorts.

Shoes - Shoes here tend to be black and pointy and/or made to look like velvet or other materials.  While you sometimes see guys wearing sneakers, you more often see what I would call dress shoes, even with a tracksuit.  Even during winter, when the streets are lethally icy, the dress shoes remain but the leather soles allow one to do a sort of cross-country skiing maneuver that I never mastered. 

Suits – I usually only see suits for occasions like weddings and they tend to be shiny.  And while not technically a suit, seeing someone in an “outfit” is not uncommon.  But some guys like to mix it up – it is not unusual to see someone in a nice shirt, track pants and dress shoes, or a tee shirt, dress slacks and dress shoes.

Even with these generalities, I have notices trends of a sort while I have been here.  The first summer in Gyumri, it was all black, everywhere.  Last summer, I started seeing red shirts all over the place.  And this year – skinny jeans and red shoes. 

So how do I manage with this?  In New York, I had an inclination for dark clothes and brought a lot with me so I fit in pretty well with the color palate.  I needed to buy a sweater this past winter and had a tough time finding one in a solid color with no logos.  I finally found one but the largest size available was on the tight side.  I have been in need of new shoes and, while there are tall people in Gyumri and my size is available, the points would make my feet look even bigger than they are.  I’ll wait.

The way that young women dress here is at odds with how conservative society is toward women.  To say that many dress provocatively would be an understatement.  I guess the reason for this is that marriage is the primary goal of many young women and by dressing provocatively the chances of attracting a husband are increased.  Older women tend to dress more modestly. 

Colors, logos, etc – Women wear more variety as far as colors go, but black is pretty common.  Animal prints are a common feature in many women’s outfits, and sometimes you can see different animals on one garment. The logo thing crosses genders and women are fond of glitter, beads, bedazzling and anything that sparkles.

Young women - For young women, clothes tend to be very tight, skirts can be very short, and heels very high.  A lot of skin is shown or additional layers tend to act like push-up bras.  There is a lot of glitter or bedazzling evident.   Hair tends to be big and either teased or “done”.  French manicures with elaborate designs are very popular.  As far as the shoes go, the heels are evident even in winter.  When I have asked about how they manage to walk through ice in stilettos, I was told that it is easy since the heels act like ice picks and prevent slippage.

Older women – Older women are more inclined to dresses, even through the winter.  The dresses are normally less form fitting and some wear pants instead.  The hair is not as done up but virtually all dye it – seeing a head of gray hair is not common.   

And every once in a while, you see something that defies description. 

For female PCVs, these fashions present a challenge.  Due to stereotypes about foreigners (being more “free” than Armenian women) dressing like a young Armenian woman is not seen as wise.  I have heard about discussions with co-workers about why heels are not worn, pants vs. dresses, absence of makeup, etc. 

There is a backlash to some of the trends here.  Several people I have spoken to refer to “qyartu” in the same way that Americans refer to “guidos”.  The “qyart” label refers to an entire attitude of flashy dress and “gangsta” attitudes that seem to have been inspired by the Al Pacino movie “Scarface”.  Take a look at the “Anti-Qyart Movement” page on Facebook if you want a better idea of how it shows itself.   

So I wonder how this will affect me when I go back to the US. I must admit that a lot of the clothes here remind me of Brooklyn in the disco era (or Staten Island today) so maybe I am just getting back to my roots.  I can get ready for a night out by putting on this number that I acquired here.

I'm qyartu and I know it.