There are a lot of things about dress that are different in the US and France, but I think none compare to the difference in footwear.
When someone asks me how I can spot a Frenchman a mile away, I always respond with the same answer: the shoes.
It was probably later on in my exposure to French culture, actually yes, it was when I met my husband that I realized I didn’t not understand the mentality behind French footwear.
This weekend I attended a large conference for my real job and fully realized to what extent this difference exists.
I was chatting with an American woman who was probably around 50 years old. I was in ballerina flats and a suit. She was wearing 4 inch patent leather heels. This was a convention in Las Vegas, a place that specializes in foot torture no matter the type of shoe.
We had walked out of the center to take a lunch break between our morning meetings. She was complaining about how bad her feet were hurting and that women now are so casual. She had been coming to the conference for 25 years and hardly any women are now in heels. She kept elaborating on dress as she took flip flops from her bag and slid them on her feet.
I can’t say that I was shocked. I have seen this happen before, but I can say that I am de-Americanized in this sense. My husband told me once that I should cut out the mid-heels from my wardrobe. He said wear one or the other… It’s better for your back and your feet to wear flats for long distance. When you do wear heels, where a nice pair of stilettos and make sure that you can walk in them. He showed a real concern for podiatric health and the way my feet would look if I continued to force myself to wear heels.
Another French-style rule is that you should be as put together in private as you are in public. Throwing on some crappy sandals because you find your peers less important to impress isn’t exactly part of la politesse. There is also a level of self-respect… An idea that I want to look as good as I do for myself and not just in front of someone that I need to make an impression on.
Formality is also playing a part in this equation. In the US, we fight with extremes when it comes to everything… alcohol, plastic surgery, fitness, drugs, smoking, food, etc. It seems that many people are on one side of the spectrum or the other. In France, balance and subtlety are important. In the US, we seem to have sweatpants or heels, a dress and full makeup. In France, some situations call for cocktail attire, some business wear and some just a easy-going, put-together look.
There is also a level of martyrdom in the US that doesn’t exist in France. “Beauty is pain” is not really a thing amongst French people. There are more realistic expectations with aging and less pressure to pay large sums of money to go under the knife.
In the end, it just kind of hurt my heart to see women literally dragging behind men because their feet were hurting and their skirts were a bit too short. I want women to feel feminine and beautiful without hurting, without spending hours on makeup and hair, etc. In my opinion, it also makes men respect you more when you chose not to comply with those silly rules. So ladies, please, drop the bag of bricks, embrace all of the levels of formality and save your toes… Seriously, bunions are not a good look. A tip that a French woman told me is that one must make sure that they can fully extend their leg when walking in heels, if unable then they are the wrong shoe.
Below I have assembled the most essential Parisian shoes. Before you scoff at the price tag, add up all of the ~ $100 shoes in your closet that are no longer worn, out of style or just not that special. I wear my Repetto flats until they have holes in them, which takes a long time given the quality. My Louboutins are my essential formal wear shoe and look good with everything. They have been in my closet for 4 years and are regulary used. Suede block heel boots are a fall/winter must in Paris because they keep you warm and comfortable. Gladiators are also a French essential, but they are so specific to France, that I couldn’t find them on my American site I use to assemble products. These “Tropeziennes” are worn by every French woman in the South or for a backyard lunch.
This isn’t about keeping up with the Jones’ with fancy shoes. It’s about looking put together, taking care of your feet and making an investment.