I cant count the number of times travelers has asked me, "Should I wear sneakers in Paris?" and other variations of the same question. American tourists especially are concerned about "not fitting in" with inappropriate shoes.
That attitude is remarkable indeed. Dressing so as not to shock the sensitivity of the locals. How much more considerate can you get? I can only give kudos to all of you who ever asked the question or thought about it!
Parisians and sneakers
Many first-time visitors to France and Paris are convinced that all French women are picture-perfect fashionistas. This is vastly exaggerated, even though access to stylish clothing is easy in Paris where Elle magazine still dictates whats in and out.
Yet I dont find such a big difference in perennial tastes in the streets of Paris and in New York avenues. Even though variations do exist, leading brands are international in nature, and they are imitated everywhere. Globalization and imitations tend to homogenize fashion, making everyday wear look similar in large cities like Paris, London, Milan, and New York.
Sneakers as fashion statement
But the question about sneakers remains valid. Sneakers have become such a commodity in the US, how is it in Paris?
At first glance, I would venture there is hardly as many women wearing sneakers in Paris as in New York during the work week. The generally accepted business dress code in France looks down on sneakers. Therefore, unless her employer cultivates a younger, sporty image, the Parisian woman wears discreet-looking city shoes to go to work.
Yet sneakers are the "it" shoe when they become design icons. Adidas, Puma and Nike each have their own stores in Paris, where dozens of different models are on display. Judging by the crowds these shops attract, none of these brands suffer from popularity deficit disorder in Paris.
So whats the major difference in shoe-attitude between the American female consumer and the French female consumer? The latter will wear sneakers as design items, not as workaday shoes. She wont buy sneakers for comfort. She will buy sneakers if they compliment dress-down pants and make them look smarter. She will buy sneakers which make her feet look thin, small, and classy.
A mere glance at the types of sneakers most commonly seen on womens feet in Paris is telling: you wont see any wide, cushy, comfy-looking, plain vanilla sneakers. You will see small, thin-looking, flat-sole, designer sneakers.
For the very same reasons, a pair of "escarpins" by Stephane Kelian or Prada will always be favored over a pair of Pumas. Shoes are a fashion statement, and the more understated it is, the better.
And thats another major difference between French and American woman. Understatement is a cardinal rule in French fashion. Anything that is too visible is considered garish. This is why the French little black dress is such a fashion icon, and why Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly will always be remembered as the American fashionable ladies.
Tourists and sneakers
Does all this mean you cant wear sneakers when you travel to Paris? Of course not!
First of all, sneakers can be comfortable walking shoes. And walk you will. The very best way to discover Paris is to walk along its streets. Wearing shoes in which you feel comfortable walking 10 miles a day at a leisurely pace is a majorly important decision for the general mood of your stay in the French capital.
Do not back off from wearing sneakers if these are your best walking shoes. And if you have even better walking shoes, pack them, even if they make you look like you are on a trekking trip!
Frankly, you should not ask yourself this question. Who cares about how you look in the street? Dont be self-conscious, just be comfortable in your shoes. You are a visitor, these are your vacations, this is your very own time! Jeans and sneakers are international. People wont be offended by your looks. Unless you dress in pink tops and electric blue pants, with golden sneakers and Jackie-O shades, nobody around will have any second thoughts about your attire.
And if they ever notice your jeans, LL Bean trekking shoes, and Patagonia jacket, well, push come to shove, they might think youre American. And so what? In all likelihood they will appreciate your visiting Paris.