“The most important advice I can give for right now is: find a pair or two of stylish shoes to wear that will be broken in but still attractive when you go to Paris. Because walking is the best way to see the city; and wearing nice shoes will garner you better treatment in cafes, stores, etc. And if you wear brand-new shoes and get blisters, it's just rotten.”
Weird advice, I know, but based on lots of experience. “It’s funny,” I continued, “people break in their hiking boots before climbing Kilimanjaro, but don't usually think about it for Paris!”
Ah, memories. I was so woefully shoe-inappropriate when I first moved to Paris. I cringe to think about it. On earlier extended visits before the Big Move, I had bought shoes in Paris, last minute, to try to blend in. I had such bad new-shoe blisters that I couldn’t shuffle across a street.
Then, idiotically, before moving to Paris, I got rid of the shoes I should have brought with me. Once I arrived I wore shoes that I thought were acceptable which got disdainful stares. Suffice it to say that I arrived in Paris laden with seven suitcases and a huge case of shoe anxiety.
It’s all relative. For example, within my first weeks living in Paris, I met up with an American pal, a friend from high school, who had been married to a Frenchman for 20 years. She was wearing running shoes and jeans when we met for dinner. I gasped. “But, M, that looks so… um... American!” I had said.
“I am American,” she quipped with total confidence, proudly displaying her Nikes and sports socks.
So, I initially tried a variation of her proud-to-be-an-American footwear bravado, sporting a pair of black Bally sneakers in my daily walks around the city. I found that the designer sneakers were vaguely acceptable (that is, they didn’t meet with open derision) if I kept walking; but if I stopped to have lunch or shop some place that was respectable, I instantly had a sense of fashion faux-pas. Shopkeepers addressing me in English, despite my perfected “Bonjour, Madame” greeting.
“Oh, pardonnez-moi, madame," the salesladies semi-apologized to me, "but you just seemed so americaine.” (In those silly shoes. )
I kept trying to learn.
You see lots of stylish French women in impossibly spiky stilettos or mile-high wedges gliding down the sidewalks of Paris, it's true. But I learned a trick from an uber-Parisienne colleague: two pairs. She wore her incredibly stylish but comfortable heels for hoofing it across the Seine. Then, just before the business meeting where she needed to charm the Big Guys, she stopped, sat down outside the building, and changed into her most dangerously feminine shoes or little wobbly bootlets, for maximum effect. It worked like a charm, every time. I was in awe.
Another time, I was determined to be a total Parisienne with my footwear. I bought a pair of Dior pumps because my glamorous friend, Marie, who is an honest-to-god French countess, had the same pair. She always looked chic and hip and wore her Dior pumps with blue jeans or a slim skirt or a dressy outfit. Would it transform me?
Guess what? I ended up wearing those expensive copy-cat Dior pumps exactly once. I later sold them at a US consignment shop to a former Miss France. Don't ask. Lesson learned.
As a casual visitor to Paris, of course you need not go to such extremes. But wearing shoes that are appropriately sophisticated will make you feel more at ease. For practical yet chic shoe staples, I eventually settled on a pair of black mid-heeled boots, some nice Italian leather ballerina flats, and a pair of loafers that could have been (but weren’t) Tods. Friends have also recommended Cole-Haan’s Nike Air-soled shoes.
Moral of story (if there is one): Paris is a sophisticated city. It is also a walking city. My advice: wear footwear that is sophisticated and comfortable for maximum enjoyment.