It’s a flaw of mine, I know, that I can follow an author’s writing yet know little about him or her. Only recently, for example, did I learn that Edith Wharton, one American’s great novelists, was an expatriate. She lived in France and distinguished herself during World War I for her work on behalf of refugees.
Naturally, I was surprised when I read of her disdain for American culture and particularly, for American women. In her book, French Ways and Their Meaning, she wrote, “Compared with women of France, the average American woman is still in kindergarten. (“Feminine Fatigue/Manners and Misdemeanors,” by Marcia De Sanctis, Town&Country, June/July 2015, pg. 102)
Wharton is not the first to have uttered unflattering comments about American women when compared to their French counterparts. (Blog 8/8/13) So, I thought it refreshing to read an essay by Marcia De Sanctis, herself an expatriate, who was willing to rise to the defense of her sisters. One of our admirable qualities, she points out, is that, like Wharton, we have a penchant for good works. Even Mathilde Thomas, founder of a cosmetic beauty line and author of The French Beauty, noted that when she came to America, “Everyone seemed so involved in community service, helping out, planting trees, volunteering. Much more so than the French.” (Ibid, pg. 104)
As for style and grace, De Sanctis notes that trendsetters like Michelle Obama and Jacqueline Kennedy have or had enough fashion sense to make French houses of couture sit up and blink. Nor should we forget Julia Child, that American institution who, armed with their pots and pans, met our Gallic friends in their kitchens and proved that as a chef she was worthy.
The only flaw in De Sanctis’ defense is her concession: “I wouldn’t be caught dead in sweatpants.” (Ibid pg. 102) Like the French, she considers the attire gauche. Well, I beg to differ. As a garment what could be more comfortable? They’re easy to clean and require no ironing. What’s more, they come in a variety of delicious colors and they don’t cost a fortune.
I wish I could point to sweatpants as a piece of American ingenuity. But, I can’t. Sweatpants were invented in the 19th century by clothier Émile Camuset of France.