An American Boy in the 1960s: Bruce in a French School

The strongest memories that I have about the clothes I wore as a boy were my short pants. My parents insisted on shorts, even when my friends didn't wear them. As a 12-year old boy finishing elementary school, I never thought I'd dress up in short pants and knee socks. That was before my dad got a chance to teach at the Sorbone in Paris. We were soon off to Europe. After a summer of touring Europe, we settked down in Paris and it was time for me to begin school. Had it not been for Dad's opportunity to study at the Sorbone I would never again have worn shorts for anything other than casual wear, But instead, I, as a tall, 12-year old American 7th grader, would find myself put back into short pants that I, as most Americans had come to think of as little boy clothes.

We spent the summer of 1964 touring Europe (Scandinavia, the Low Countries, and the British Isles) before settling down in Paris. Every where we went, I saw European boys in short pants--often strikingly short, sometimes with knee socks, neckties and jackets. When my parents saw the way European boys were dressing, I was instantly put back into shorts. Long pants were banned.

A French Boys' School

When we finally got to Paris, my parents put me into a public boys' school near our apartment. The French system differs from the American in many respects; one of those is that kids do not all advance in lock step. Given my nearly non-existent French, the school thought it best if I went into the equivalent of 6th rather than 7th grade, but boys in my class ranged from 9 to 13. I was neither the oldest nor the tallest, but on the first day of classes, it was almost the reverse of the situation back in Laramie--I was one of the few boys in long trousers.

My parents had relented when I said I wanted to start school in long pants until we found out what the style of dress in school was for boys my age; I had enough going against me, hardly speaking the language, and I didn't need to stand out by being oddly dressed. Long pants in a boy my age and height were not all that odd, but I was in a distinct minority. So back into shorts I went until the weather turned colder. I didn't really fight it. The truth was that although I felt I needed to prove my independence, I genuinely preferred wearing shorts. Indeed, as I noticed my classmates--many of them in extremely short lederhosen or corduroy shorts--I almost asked my parents to buy me shorts like that, but I could never quite get up the courage to do it.

As the fall wore on and the weather got colder, boy after boy switched to long pants (usually cords). I did too. My mother just said, "You'd better wear your cords today. It looks like it's going to be cold." I wanted to say, "No, I'd rather wear shorts", but I put on the cords without saying anything. I couldn't help notice, however, that while a majority of the boys were switching to longs, not all of them were. Many of them started wearing thick knee socks, but kept right on with shorts. It didn't seem to have much to do with age either--one boy, at least 13, always wore the same sweater, grey flannel shorts, and grey knee socks outfit right through the winter. When it got really bitterly cold after Christmas, the number of shorts wearers diminished to a handfull, but there were always at least a few stalwarts.

Spring Time

I was in longs all winter, but in the spring (fairly late in the spring), mom brought out the short pants again. I was one of the later converts back to shorts--by the time I put them back on, I was down to a distinct minority still in longs. However, a funny thing happened to me--I had shot up in height over the winter, so that when I put on my shorts again, they had gotten much shorter and tighter and that I felt embarrassed again--not so much in school, although I had become the tallest boy in my class. At school it didn't really make all that much difference. On the street, however, being so tall and wearing such short shorts I did feel very self concious. I mentioned this to my mother, but all she could say is how smart I looked.

That was the last time in my life I ever wore shorts for dress-up occasions. Even though I felt a bit shy away from school about wearing such shrort shorts, I still remember how pleasant the air felt--the sense of it being spring, sitting in class with the windows open and seeing so many of my classmates in their short pants, many with white knee socks. I cannot believe that it wasn't better for boys to be in school dressed this way than the intense aping of adult dress that would characterize school wear back in the states.

French Boys' Clothes

It took me some months before I could speak the language well enough to have regular conversations or understand what the other boys were saying. I don't recall ever having a conversation about clothes with my friends, or ever overhearing one, which doesnt mean it didn't happen. The boy who sat next to me for a while did wear shorts most of the year. I do remember when he wore very short lederhosen with knee socks one day late in the winter after a few weeks in cords, I asked him if he wasn't cold, and he just shrugged as if it was a non-issue.

Far and above the most common shortpants style was quite short gray corduroy shorts. They were not as short as Japanese shorts until quite recently, which left the entire thigh bare, but they were half to 2/3 of the way between the knees and the groin. They were most typcally worn with grey kneesocks, although sometimes particularly in the spring, with white kneesocks or ankle socks. The other two major styles were lederhosen -- worn very short, usually with knee socks -- and close-to-knee-length navy shorts, usually worn with ankle socks. I also saw a few English-type longer grey flannel shorts, worn with knee socks. Longs were gray or navy or brown cords; no jeans.

At school we did not wear coat and tie or suit. Shorts were most typically worn with sweaters, pullovers or regular shirts in warmer weather. To my recollection, there was little difference between the way boys dressed in school or out. If I had seen something similar in Paris, I probably would have remembered it.

Berets were faily common in France. A few boys did wear those classic "French blue" school smocks, but to my recollection, they were more common in the lower grades.

I do not remember footwear. I think some of the boys wore Enlish-style school sandals but, as I say, I really have no recollection. I was not allowed to wear sneakers to school --either in France or the States--and wore typical brown or black lace oxfords.

Back to the States

After the year in Paris, we moved to Ticson, where I attended 8th-12th grades. For details on an American high school, click HERE.

Author: Bruce McPherson

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Last updated: October 12, 1998