I can’t count the number of times travelers have asked me, "Should I wear sneakers in Paris?" and many 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 have 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 Vogue magazine still dictates what’s in and out.
Yet I don’t 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, but how is it in Paris?
At first glance, I would venture there are 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 what’s the major difference in shoe-attitude between the American female consumer and the French female consumer? It's fairly straightforward: the main difference is that the latter will wear sneakers as design items, not as workaday shoes. She won’t buy sneakers for comfort. She will buy sneakers if they complement 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 women’s feet in Paris is telling: you won’t 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 that’s 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 can’t 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 and you won't regret making that decision.
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? Don’t 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 won’t 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, if push comes to shove, they might think you’re American. And so what? In all likelihood they will appreciate your visiting Paris.
Restaurants and sneakers
Now, does it mean you can wear sneakers everywhere, on any and every occasion? Probably not. Restaurants are a case in point. Can you dine out in sneakers?
Say, you are strolling along in your casual jeans and comfortable Lands End boots. It’s now dinner time, and you are looking for an enticing restaurant. There it is! The menu displayed outside is appetizing, prices are reasonably expensive, the place is not too crowded...
but guests are dressed smartly. Will they let you in? Will you fit in?
I have yet to see in Paris a restaurant or even a bar door sign indicating "No Sneakers Allowed In." True, some high-brow places will expertly leave you at bay: "Do you have a reservation? Sorry, we are full tonight." But generally speaking, no restaurant will refuse to seat you because you wear sneakers.
The right question is therefore not, "Will they allow me in?" but, "Will I feel comfortable entering a dressy place in sneakers?" I daresay probably not. And being self-conscious is not the best way to enjoy your meal. Your attention should be in your plate and on your food, not on your shoes and attire.
So my practical rule is to dress according to the place you go to. If you plan to dine out at expensive, dressy restaurants when you are in Paris, just pack your Pradas. Even better: visit Stephane Kelian’s and Robert Clergerie’s boutiques in Paris, and buy yourself great-looking footwear by these typically Parisian designers.
Other places and sneakers
There are other places where sneakers just won’t cut it.
The Opera House is definitely one of them. But who would be so foolish as not to dress up for opera night? The sneaker point is moot.
What about a cabaret? I would say it is much better to dress up when you have dinner at a cabaret like ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Lido’, and ‘Paradis Latin’. Though only the stage is well lit in these places, the fact is people around you will usually be dressed up. You will feel much more comfortable in some more formal wear.
How about the boats on the Seine? If you are boarding a boat for a dinner cruise, don’t wear sneakers. This is a romantic experience, you will want to make the most of it and you certainly won't be scrambling up and down stairs and going on deck. An evening dress is de rigueur. On the other hand, if you simply want to cruise up and down the stream, sneakers are fine.
Museums? Forget style, wear very comfortable shoes. Nobody will look at your shoes, it's the art on the walls that will hold the attention. But walking up and down is a tiring experience: so much too see, so many galleries, so slow the pace. The good doctor’s advice: go with cushion and comfort.
Art gallery vernissages? Style is your cue. Art galleries are small, vernissage evenings are short. Evening dress, black preferably, nothing flashy, and good-looking design shoes. No sneakers.
Dress according to the place you are going to.
If in doubt, call in advance to understand the dress code. Pack up a nice pair of shoes, or even better, buy some when you are in Paris. Bring a nice, understated evening dress.
But don’t shy away from sneakers for any not-so-formal occasion. Wear them in the street with no shame. You will blend in without any problem if you wear jeans and a pair of sneakers. Nike is an American brand, and it is very popular in France. Levi’s, Diesel, Wrangler, and Calvin Klein are American brands, and they rule the jeans world in France too.
So be comfortable in your sneakers, and enjoy the view.