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July 10th - Sartorially Yours

I remember one winter when it snowed in London. For one glorious weekend there were no parking restrictions because you couldn’t see the yellow lines. There was no work because the buses weren’t running. There were no traffic jams because no-one could drive in from the suburbs. London came to a grinding halt and Londoners went out to play.

We went sledging at Alexandra Palace, a building which is surrounded by steeply sloping lawns. The place was packed, everyone was there to play with the snow. In the eerie silence of traffic-free London, adults and children alike were laughing out loud, throwing snowballs, sliding, slipping, falling over, hurling themselves about in the snow. There were groups of young men, couples, families, kids, dog-walkers, old duffers, all kinds of people.

A few of them had old fashioned wooden sledges with ropes and runners but most of them were using whatever came to hand - tin trays, black bin bags, old doors. I even saw one group of students tobogganing down the hill in a bath, presumably hauled out of a skip somewhere.

People were wearing their warmest and thickest clothes; double layers of coats, two pairs of jeans, fur hats tied on with woolly scarves, anoraks dragged on over three jumpers, boots, scarves, gloves, hats; whatever they thought would keep out the cold.

You won’t see that in France. The French don’t make their outfits up at random according to what it looks like out of the bedroom window. They buy complete outfits and only put them on for the appropriate occasion. Take our local ski station, a modest affair which is only open for a few weeks a year. It certainly doesn’t attract foreign tourists or the smart set. The only people who go up there are locals, plus a few die-hards from Nimes and Montpellier, and half the time there isn’t enough snow to ski, so the slopes are only open for luges. Furthermore there’s only one canteen and everything comes with chips. So it’s pretty much the equivalent of Ally Pally on a snowy Sunday.

But no-one would dream of going up there in jeans, wellies and a waterproof jacket left over from a sailing holiday. The French just don’t do that. They always wear the right outfit. So even at an insignificant little snow station lost in the Cevennes, they turn up in snowsuits, moon boots, skiing goggles and ear-muffs, with neat day-glo stripes on their noses and cheeks, and matching sports gloves with grippy palms so that they can wait for the ski lift with style and panache.

The French just don’t feel right unless they’re wearing the appropriate clothing. Frenchwomen go to exhibitions in large beads, ballet pumps and floppy cardies. They wear neat suits to the office, jeans and well-cut blouses to Sunday lunch, and as little as possible to the beach.

A French man wouldn’t dream of going out for a cycle ride wearing jeans. He always wears tight black cycling shorts when he’s riding his bike. Even if he has macaroni legs, a big fat bottom, or a pendulous beer belly... if he’s going to heave himself onto a bicycle, he’ll have to lever himself into his shiny lycra first. Regardless of how silly they look.

There’s just absolutely no way he’d peddle round the village in jeans, track suit bottoms or football shorts. As sledging requires a snow-suit so does cycling require lycra shorts and that’s the end of it.

Football shorts are for le foot, and tracksuit bottoms are for Saturday nights, when they are teamed with American caps and logo-emblazoned T-shirts and worn to the cinema to see American action films. The French don’t mix their outfits up.

They have special clothes for wearing on holiday (anything pink, printed with English-looking phrases complete with extraneous apostrophes); weekend clothes for wearing to the beach (loose-fitting, preferably pale yellow); and of course, special clothes for anniversaries, fetes and weddings.

It would be unthinkable to go to a wedding wearing anything normal. You have to bowl up in something extraordinary and over-styled. Lop-sided garments are especially popular; skirts with asymmetrical hems, blouses with one sleeve missing, hats perched over one ear, flowers on one hip but not the other, hairdos involving weaving, shoes with peculiar heels, hats with wonky brims, suits with unusual collar details, mint-coloured shirts, and of course for the men wide pastel-coloured ties worn loose over open collars.

Mind you, I suppose the clothes are as nothing compared to the ritual humiliation they dish out with such enthusiasm on these occasions.

I remember one 50th birthday party where the hostess was called up to the stage to listen to a long spiel about her sex life before opening a present which turned out to be a string necklace consisting of two enormous turnips and an outsize carrot.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. The French, the classy French, the elegant, formal, stylish, correct, well-mannered, endlessly polite, classy French whooping and whistling as a 50-year old woman submitted to having a vegetable phallus hung round her neck.

I was completely gobsmacked. I simply couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And not only did she let them put the thing round her neck, but she also cracked up at the subsequent, extraordinarily filthy jokes, before proceeding to dance the night away with her anniversary vegetables bouncing joyfully between her breasts.

At the time, I thought perhaps it was a one-off, just a joke between a group of exceptionally lively friends. Not a bit of it. When a girlfriend of mine rashly got married in France a similar thing happened: they were both dragged up on stage and made to mime changing each other’s nappies.

“Come on, wipe that bottom!” ordered the DJ, handing out paper serviettes. But that wasn’t bad enough. In front of 250 guests they had to stand on the stage being spoonfed - with a grossly outsized wooden spoon - huge quantities of sticky, lumpy chocolate gloop out of a pink plastic potty. The British guests were speechless with shock. “Eat up!” ordered the classy French DJ, “you’re married now, so you’d better get used to eating shit!”

But perhaps she got off lightly, because another bride of my acquaintance spent her wedding reception sitting on stage beside the groom as the female guests paid up 50 euros each to unzip the groom’s trousers and pull out loop after loop of fake penis, which when finally extracted, was seen to be topped off with a large blob of cotton wool.

At which point, the groom’s friends started an auction to see the bride’s legs, guests paying up to 50 euros to hike her skirt up while her new husband sat beside her with his trousers round his ankles, his fake willy dangling down past his knees, and tears of laughter pouring down his face.

Well, I don’t know any British bloke who would be seen dead wearing fake phallus knickers - at least not in public. They just don’t do that sort of thing. They’d sooner die. They’d sooner be seen wearing lycra cycling shorts which have gone baggy round the bottom... or perhaps that’s it!

Frenchmen, with their twin passions for cycling and wearing appropriate clothes, are so used to looking silly that extending the practice to formal social occasions is nothing to them.

There’s nothing humiliating or embarrassing about it. When celebrating a birthday or getting married in France, it’s completely normal to wear a two-foot long, bright scarlet fake phallus.

It’s simply a question of dressing correctly for the occasion.

Next column will be uploaded around the end of July.

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