I didn’t think seriously about fashion and beauty until I, an American East Coaster, became a resident of two small islands: Britain and then Japan.
Both London and Tokyo are fashion capitals, and living in each of these cities, I found that every so often I really enjoy thinking about striking clothing combinations, make-up, and self-pampering.
Would I have discovered this love of what America’s Puritan founders would call frivolity had I stayed in this country? It’s conceivable, especially if I’d moved to New York City, where I now live as a repatriate. (NOTE: While I do not have Puritan ancestry, I was raised to be a bluestocking, not a girl in rhinestone-studded pantyhose.)
But in the event, I discovered fashion and beauty through my travels — and from learning about how women in other countries clothe and groom themselves.
So what, you may ask, were my key take-aways from this relatively speaking decadent period of my life? No specific beauty products or fashions, but these five guiding principles:
1) To get an English rose (or any other perfect) complexion, you have to be born with it. Nevertheless, skin care is worth it.
As a Caucasian woman, one of my beauty ideals was that of the English rose: a woman with flawless porcelain skin and rosy cheeks that look as though they’ve been produced by good bracing walks in the countryside wearing sensible shoes and tweed skirts.
When I first moved to England and encountered some actual English Roses, I wondered: is it because of the climate, the cosmetics from Boots the Chemist, the diet? (How do I get me one of those?)
My research soon revealed that diet has nothing to do with it. Not in a country where people grow up eating chips and crisps.
And as nice as the No7 products are, they can’t work miracles.
So maybe a glowing appearance is the result of England’s unique climatic conditions: a paucity of direct sunlight and the moisturizing drizzle that almost always seems to be in the air?
I hardly think that can be the case, as there are plenty of Britons with problem skin…
Trying not to turn pea green with envy (hardly a flattering shade!), I could come to only one conclusion: you have to be born with it.
But, not to despair! Once I reached Japan, where women are obsessed with their skin — some even use whitening lotions to obtain a creamier complexion — I learned that of all the things you can do for beauty, skin care is the most worthwhile.
Ladies, if you protect your skin, you might find yourself turning into an English Rose when you get a bit older — the Last Rose of Summer, so to speak. While some may swear by Crème de la Mer, I go with the regime I picked up in Japan: sunscreen, a hat and a parasol.
I’d also recommend befriending your dermatologist, who knows a lot more about skin care and sun protection than the woman behind the cosmetics counter…
2) Don’t be afraid of experimenting with your hair: it can add some spice and life to your image.
In the UK one of my English rose-complexioned friends favored a chic bob — but with a streak of blue, green or red in it.
As an American fresh off the boat, I was rather scandalized. Why was she ruining a perfectly good hairstyle?
Over time, however, I came to realize that when you live in a country where skies are often the color of lead, adding a bright color to a strand of hair can brighten up your day.
By the time I left England, I could no longer understand why any woman, once she reached maturity, wouldn’t dye or highlight her hair. She doesn’t know the fun she’s missing out on! And, even though I have yet to streak my hair in an outrageous color, it’s definitely on my bucket list.
In Japan, too, I got some kicks from playing with my hair — this time, by adorning it with the kinds of hair ornaments that have been popular since the times when women wore kimono and kanzashi: combs, hair sticks and pins, hair bands, and fancy barrettes.
I did not have particularly long hair when I first reached Japan, but as long hair is the signature of Japanese ladies — and they were my new role models — I soon had locks long enough to make the most of such accessories. My favorite was the snood — I had one that was attached to a barrette covered with a bow. What a great way to keep long hair out of one’s face.
3) Gemstones and pearls are a girl’s best friend.
Sorry, Marilyn dear, but after living in the UK and Japan, my BFFs are gemstones and pearls. Is this because I went to England in the era of Princess Diana, with her (now Kate Middleton’s) 18-carat sapphire ring?
My relationship with colored gemstones only deepened after I moved to Japan and went on several sojourns into Southeast Asia, land of rubies and sapphires, among others.
My engagement ring is a ruby (purchased by my hubby in Tokyo!).
In Japan itself, I fell for pearls and now have quite the collection of necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets, mostly from Wally Yonamine’s in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. The owner, Jane, wife of Wally (a professional baseball player who played with the Yomiuri Giants) is a displaced Japanese Hawaiian.
4) Youth is the time to have fun with fashion.
In the UK, I was taken in by the spectacle of punk and post-punk kids and their strange fashions, while in Japan I found it mesmerizing to watch the Lolita fashions of the Harajuku kids, on a Sunday afternoon.
Eventually, instead of thinking they were weird, I regretted never having had my own equivalent of wearing Doc Martens with a Laura Ashley dresses … sporting long, back-combed hair, pale skin, dark eyeshadow, eyeliner, and lipstick, black nail varnish, along with a spiked bracelet and dog-collar … dressing up like a Victorian boy …
It just wasn’t the done thing, in my stiff, conservative American circles, to wear outlandish garb. And now it’s too late, of course. Youth is the time when you can get away with it. After that, you have to wait for Halloween. (Unless, of course, you want to come across as “mutton dressed as lamb,” as the English say…)
5) Last but not least, my top beauty tip, reinforced by both of these countries: A bath is much preferable to a shower.
At the beginning of living in England, I missed the American shower so much. I was convinced I would never be clean again. But then one day I woke up and realized I’d been brainwashed into believing I needed to have a shower every day. In fact, daily showers dry out the skin. As one dermatologist puts it:
Most people wash far too much. Using piping-hot water combined with harsh soaps can strip the skin of its oils, resulting in dryness, cracking and even infection.
That was around the same time I opened my mind to the possibility that baths — which tend to be favored over showers in the UK (at least in my day) — might actually be preferable. Nothing like a long hot bath with a glass of wine and a book, my English friends would say. Or, as one British beauty site puts it:
A nice bubble bath is the closest you can come to having a spa-like relaxing experience in your own home, without much effort or without spending a lot of money.
Too true! Plus the English shops sell such wonderful bubble bath creams. My favorite was the Perlier Honey Miel (actually from Italy).
Still, I didn’t mind giving all of that up once I reached Tokyo — not the bathing but the bubbles. In the land of the communal bath, you scrub the skin first and then have a long soak in clean hot water, in a tub (ofuro) that is deep rather than long.
Indeed, Japan was where I learned the benefits of exfoliation: I ended up sloughing off dry skin from parts of my body I didn’t know existed. And then the immersion in clean hot water: bliss! Like returning to the womb…
For a Japanese who works long hours, bathing is a sacred time, a ritual. While I haven’t quite converted that far, I have a Pavlovian reaction every time I hear bath water running. Time to go into Total Relax Mode!
I even have a Japanese bath here in my apartment in NYC, and the thought of sitting in it is what keeps me going … That said, I must confess that I sometimes put bubbles in. What can I say? I’m displaced.
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So, readers, what do you make of my five beauty principles? Have you picked up any of your own in the countries where you live? I’m all ears — only please excuse me for a minute while I make sure the bath water isn’t running over. (I don’t want my downstairs neighbors knocking on my door at 3:00 a.m.!)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
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