Whenever I fly back to Oklahoma I feel like I’m shedding layers of culture, like a snake sheds skin. The move from Europe to Mid-America takes me from a place where almost everything has an air of elegance, from the small cups of coffee to my finely dressed compatriots flying alongside me, and drops me in a place where elegance is a word more likely to be mistaken for elephant. At each successive gate, at each successive airport I can tell I’m getting closer to home by the decrease in concern for outward appearance and an increase in concern for jumbo sized everything. Finally, I arrive at the gate for Tulsa, Oklahoma and a little bit of me dies inside. Sure it’s one step away from home, but it’s also filled with people wearing sweatpants, shorts with calf-high white socks, matching his-n-hers Eskimo Joe’s shirts, flip-flops, tank tops that hardly hide tufts of armpit hair, and oversized basketball shorts on a pack slack-jawed yokels. While the US may have our security agencies reading our emails and monitoring our phone calls, one thing we clearly do not have are the fashion police.

Imagine going from Split where you see and laugh at the poorly dressed tourists and then ending up on a plane, then in a state and finally a city filled with them. This is me each time I go home. It wasn’t always this way. My first summer in Split I was decked out in my white socks, shorts, and tennis shoes ready to hit the riva. I was quickly informed that I was ready to go nowhere. My punica forbade (YES! FOR-BADE) me from leaving the house in what I had been leaving the house in my whole life. At the time I thought this was a little repressive. I figured why should this lady care what I WEAR out. It’s not like people on the riva will know that I’m her son-in-law (actually, I later learned it is totally like that). I actually believe my mother-in-law was trying to save me from myself. Another time I went to the center in a raggedy old hooded sweatshirt and felt like a homeless man (except homeless men in Croatia are dressed better than this). Feeling out of place by a publicly inadequate level of dress was a new experience for me. In the US, anything goes.

Croatians are generally a pretty stylish bunch. Though not everyone dresses or looks the same. There are people who dress more alternatively, there are hipsters, punks and goths. There are people who (attempt) to dress stylishly what we would call preps, or trendy folks. There are the super stylish, the fashionistas. And there are caykuša. There is really no translation for caykuša. No matter which style one adopts people here are dressed with a self-awareness or self-consciousness that demonstrates a commitment to looking good: Stylistically diverse, but stylish nonetheless. Even at the university here I have never seen someone that looks like they just rolled out of bed, slipped on some pants just off the floor and strolled out into the day (that, by the way, is basically how I rolled all through undergrad). Even when my students come in hungover their eyes might look like boiled eggs slathered in Tobasco sauce, but their clothes are ironed.

There is, however, one puzzle piece in the mosaic of Croatian fashion and that is the asymmetrical gender standards. Really. It’s not uncommon to see a woman who looks and is dressed like a super model at Bau Max or wherever with a dude wearing track suit pants, a t-shirt and a fanny pack (still ironed though). I mean this guy is really one pair of white socks away from being an Oklahoman. In America we are equal opportunity eyesores. You can see a man dressed in sweat pants and a t-shirt from a Bible study camp he went to in 1996 and in the same tacky gaze lay witness to large woman wearing an oversized tweety bird t-shirt and a pair of butt-tight turquoise shorts. Those images are just a fact of life. What I don’t get about Croatia is how the women often dress like they fell out of the pages of a fashion magazine and the dudes dress like my uncle right after he’s mowed the lawn. And they’ll be TOGETHER.

Growing up in America I rebelled against the idea that we should have socially imposed norms. This led me to dying my hair and sporting a mohawk (something Croatians call an iroquois for some reason). As a result of the counter-culture or the fact that we spend most of our time with the television, which can’t see what we are wearing, it feels like there is no longer any social demands for how one should look and dress. There was actually a time when men couldn’t go outside without wearing a hat! Nowadays we have signs telling people they have to wear pants to enter McDonald’s!  On each return to the US part of me wants people to have enough pride, dignity, or self-respect to dress like they give a damn about life. This is not say that people shouldn’t dress in a way that helps them express themselves, please do. Conscious self-expression, an outward sign that you have an inner awareness about yourself is wonderful. White socks and shorts, sweat pants and “comfortable clothes,” sloppiness of any sort at the airport, trg, riva, or anywhere public, just suggests you are not only unaware, you’re probably comatose.

Now here is a David Bowie video.

Fashion by David Bowie