Three days ago, one of my best friends, Alicia, moved to central Africa. She's planning on staying in Benin for a year. A couple of days prior to her departure, we were brunching together and talking about this and that when she casually mentioned she had to buy clothes for the days she would spend on the jungle. Showing a Zoolanderish level of ignorance, I immediately said "just get hold of a lovely silk blouse, a beige YSL skirt, some chic boots and a vintage hat, darling. You'll be fabulous". The way she looked at me, partly amused and partly worried, told me I had just said something colossally stupid.
You see, after a lifetime of watching too many fashion magazines and Hollywood films, my idea of the perfect jungle attire is this:
That brunch got me wondering: have the fashion and the cinema industries distorted my vision of reality that much? Anyone who knows me is aware that the word "practical" simply doesn't exist in my style vocabulary; and neither, it would seem after a thorough analysis, in Hollywood's.
Ava Gardner spotted this look in Mogambo. It wasn't until today that I realized wearing heel sandals during a safari is maybe not the best idea. You probably get tarantulas walking on your feet by doing so. I also wonder about the parasol, although it's probably a good way of avoiding tarantulas falling on your head (something Alicia told me had happened to her once).
In Red Dust, an earlier version of the same story (starring Clark Gable as well), Jean Harlow honoured Kenya by walking around like this. To be honest, I can't see why one wouldn't wear ostrich feathers in Africa; after all, ostrichs are African, so it's almost like going camouflage, right? The thing that worries me in Jean's look is her hairdo. I don't see how anyone could achieve that hair in the middle of the jungle, with no electricity and no haidressers in sight.
The ultimate queen of glamour, sophistication and impracticality is, without the shade of a doubt, Marlene (Dietrich, bien sûr). In the films where she played a character living in exotic places, she showed different levels of "simplicity". A printed foulard seems perfect to give some "je ne sais quoi" to the simplest safari look (then again, I don't think lions are particularly sensitive to detail).
At night, though, and with Gary Cooper (who is much more sensitive than lions to feminine charms), Marlene wraps up in velvet and satin pumps.
Sometimes, sublimely and purposefully ignoring she's not in a Berlin cabaret anymore, she gets the works: tulle, feathers, fur and long dresses. Ok, I admit this is too much even for me; but doesn't she look divine?
Since heels, pretty hairdos and long dresses are relatively useless in the jungle, one can compensate with an item that can add a dashing touch of style to the simplest outfit: a hat. Big, small, rigid or floppy, anything goes. Kate Hepburn's in African Queen is rather cool, but since Bogie takes it away from her and throws it into the river at the end of the film we can look for other options.
Ava Gardner's hat here is a lovely masculine touch that perfectly matches her Saharienne blouse. But Grace Kelly's is an absolute classic. Everyone used to wear those hats. Unfortunately, probably no one does anymore and everyone (even the lions and the tarantulas) would laugh at me if I wore that kind of hat today, but I still would totally wear it.
If anyone knows how to dress in Africa, that's Ingrid Bergman. Alright, that hat would probably get stuck between two trees. And an immaculate white skirt is probably not the most sensible choice. And those sandals are obviously not "practical". Oh well...
And what about Hollywood's version of African atrezzo and home decoration? That has given me a distorted vision of things as well. Until Alicia showed me the pictures of her new home in Benin, I thought living in Africa was a good excuse to have a wooden bungalow with a piano, a bar furnished with all sorts of whisky, lots of carved glass and beaten-looking silver cutlery and dinner parties with moustache-bearing Englishmen dressed in ivory linen suits.
I can't believe how deluded I was. But it's never too late to learn, so I decided to find out how real people actually dress to go on a safari.
And I did.
And I did.
After having this taste of reality, I think I'll stick to my daydream delusions. They might be absurd and silly, but they are more poetic and fun.