When I lived in a suburb, I drove to work and school. I couldn't wear anything that wrinkled easily- it wasn't uncommon to sit forty minutes in traffic- and had to keep a shovel, sunglasses, change of shoes, coat and umbrella in the car, because who knew what the weather would be like after an hour in Cleveland. Though the walk from my car to building spanned six blocks, I wore heels on a near-daily basis. One trip to Paris, these were the only shoes I packed; if I wore a bag, it was either too small or too heavy / large to carry around. Forget anything silky: one crowded Métro ride would surely, irreparably snag it.
Ballet flats seemed like a sensible switch. After thirteen kilometers, my feet looked like piranhas bit them, too swollen to fit once-roomy shoes. Recently, a lady at the bus stop slipped off lovely flats to reveal raw, pink flesh and bunions so severe, I could practically see the displaced sesamoid bone. My friend Elodie, a lifelong Parisian and podologue, thinks flats should be banned here, as in Cannes. "They don't provide the shock absorption city dwellers need," she explains. "This causes over-pronation, joint deterioration, and foot pain."
Shoes were the least of my problems. Skirts flew up over Métro grates, made biking impossible, and got caught in turnstiles. Last year, I sat on a park bench during lunch and a man sneezed on me, staining my white shirt so badly, it had to be recycled. Another time, two women fighting on Pont Marie bumped into me, bloodying my dress beyond repair. No wonder Parisians are practical about their wardrobes, gravitating towards easy, casual clothes. I had a lot to learn. Whether you walk, drive, bike, or ride to work, here's how to dress comfortably in Paris:
Six Tips for Commuter Dressing
- Dresses and a cardigan or coat with matching skirt are more comfortable than suits. "They don't require a belt, or tugging at your blouse the whole day," says my friend Alice. Dresses permit ease of movement, and soft sweaters can be folded when you don't need them anymore.
- Avoid too-tight styles and silhouettes. You can still enjoy a nipped-in waist or curvy skirt, but allow room to breathe so you don't rip a giant slit while running down Métro stairs. Try slightly flared or pleated models instead of pencil skirts- which I really only see on fashion editors- at a below-the-knee length you can bike in.
- Wear tunics, raglan sleeves, knits, tie-neck, and wraparound blouses instead of fitted button-downs, which are less versatile and more apt to crease. "Only Americans and older women wear them," says my friend Margaux.
- Get a good coat. This doesn't necessarily mean an expensive one, but it has to be rainproof, something you'll enjoy wearing 400 days a year and won't be embarrassed to carry around. Light, easily removable layers are better than heavy coats, which turn into an inferno in a crowd. Lastly, invest in a portable, quality umbrella (such as these ethically made or renewable cork styles) that hides stains. Crook handles are easier to carry than straight ones because you can hook them over your arm, leaving hands free to do other stuff, like bat away pigeons.
- Everything should be washable, or at least easy to clean, since you never know what you might sit or step in. A bird pooped on my shirtdress two weeks ago, and I was so happy to just throw it in the laundry after. Choose fabrics that resist wrinkles and absorb odors, such as wool, over flimsy, sweaty fabrics like acetate or satin, and durable materials for accessories, like patent leather.
- Keep bags to scale. The most you'll ever need here are a phone, Ticket Resto, Navigo, keys, and lunch or snack, so there's no need to carry around the mini-suitcases favored by fashion bloggers. They get very annoying on your shoulder after an hour or so. Many French women I know do not carry makeup in their bags, which was the most difficult habit for me to break- as my friend Claudine says unequivocally, "It's rude to apply lipstick in public." I always have a handkerchief with me, too, which came in handy when the bird pooped on me.
Some Parisians I know keep perfume, lipstick, a powder compact, and extra sweater or pair of tights (they love black tights, even in the summertime!) at their desks, never in a handbag. As I've mentioned before, the concept of day-to-night dressing rules here, but I've seen women carry something formal in a garment bag for after work. They don't wear a separate evening coat for even the fanciest dresses- a leather jacket does just as well. My acquaintance Tiphaine once topped a full-length Christian Dior gown with a Moncler puffer, and Lina uses the same Burberry trench she throws over jeans. I make sure I always have one nice red dress, adaptable, appropriate for both an office or Cercle Interallié, that I can throw a cardigan on or wear alone. I try to avoid wearing black to events, because everyone else does, and on me, it sort of screams "I'm from Cleveland." Click here to read what shoes to wear and pack for Paris.