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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wearing Shorts in Paris

In the last few days I have had a couple of experiences which aid in reinforcing my reasoning for writing this article on the French perception of shorts.

Just yesterday, Julie surprised me for my birthday with a guided tour of L'Hôtel de Ville, or Paris' big city hall. It is very difficult to get access to the city hall, so I was thrilled to be along for the tour. Through a contact, Julie got us on tour with an elderly group from the Loire Valley.

About halfway through the tour, one of the ladies asked me "Where you with the group this morning?," even though I'm sure she knew that I wasn't, since we were the only ones below the age of 55. I told her no, that we got on this tour thanks to a friend, and this tour was a total surprise. She responded by saying, "Well it must have been since you are wearing shorts." She also commented to Julie to be careful when she sat down, as people might be able to see up her shorts.

In retrospect, if I had known that we would be on a tour of the city hall, I probably would have dressed a little nicer. I was wearing a collared shirt, shorts, and Birkenstock sandals. It was warm yesterday, so I wanted to be comfortable. Most of the group on tour were dressed as if going to a wedding; men were in suits and ties and ladies in elegant dresses.

If this was the only instance of being repressed for wearing shorts, I probably wouldn't be writing an article on the subject. However, this was not the only occasion.

A couple of weeks ago, I was giving a tour on another unusually warm day for April. As we were eating at one of the restaurants on tour, one of the cooks came out to say hello and see how things were going. As I got up to shake his hand, he comments, "Oh, are you being a tourist today as well?" As he said this, he looked down at my legs.

You guessed it, I was wearing shorts.

There was nothing mean in the way he said it, so I replied that it was hot and I like to be comfortable when giving a tour, and he agreed, and then we continued talking about other things.

One other example: A year or two ago, I was giving another tour with a group of anglophones when I heard a lady behind us start to comment to her daughter, "I don't get what it is with those tourists and wearing shorts." She didn't realize that someone in the group might speak French. I turned around as soon as she said this and made eye contact with her. Before I had the chance to respond, she realized that I understood, and pulled a 90 degree turn into the closest shop.

This is something that continues to baffle me. In a country where topless beaches are prevalent, and magazine kiosks next to schools are plastered with nude women in sexual acts, why do people here have fits about others who wear shorts?

When I first arrived here, I really tried my best to blend in with the French. I tried to eat like them, talk like them, and also dress like them. When it started to become warm, I tried to wear jeans when I worked outside, but alas, I gave up. It wasn't worth it for me to sacrifice my comfort for conformity.

Perhaps in a city where people still get dressed up just to go downstairs to go to the baker for 30 seconds, shorts are seen as sloppy. Rarely will one find a Parisian male whose legs are not covered by pants. Sandals, in addition, are still a rarity here, and a good way to stand out as a tourist.

Nevertheless, the amount of indignation and disgust with wearing shorts seems strangely out of proportion, especially considering how France is usually seen as more relaxed and liberal in terms of lifestyle. If anyone could provide further insight into why shorts are seen in such a poor light here in Paris, please let me know. Until then, I guess I'll just put up with the whispers and comments about baring my hairy legs to the public.

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  1. liked this post JP! i think it does have to do with the "sloppy" aspect. I don't think it's as much a decency issue as the fact that Parisians just think it looks stupid and lazy. It reminds me a little of how you'll go downtown here in the dead of summer and see guys in business suits when it's over 100. why do it? couldn't everyone just agree it's too hot for suits? you'd think so but tradition has a way of holding on. nevertheless, wear you shorts proudly.

  2. Glad you liked it!

    I'll have to agree with you. It takes just a little more effort to get dressed up, and I think people appreciate the effort here. It blows my mind when I go around here when it is in the 90's in summer time, and lots of people, even though they aren't going to work and really have nothing better to do besides hang out in a park, will still wear a suit. I guess the body could probably get used to it, but it still seems a little excessive to be dapper yet uncomfortable.

    I remember on the first trip for Julie to the US, we were staying in a hotel and she happened to comment how in the U.S., it seems very important for us to be comfortable wherever we go. While hostels are a rarity in the U.S., staying in one room with a lightbulb swinging from the ceiling surrounded by 10 loud 20 year olds is considered "part of the experience" of traveling in Europe. I guess we just have a difference in priorities in France and the U.S.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. I am in Paris for a few days at the moment, and thought I would look up this fact about shorts in Paris after wearing them two days in a row, and feeling decidedly out of place, and uncomfortable! Everyone here seems to have their legs covered, even though it has been hot, and I have had more people than usual 'look me up and down' while walking on the street. Even after reading your blog, it still seems a little ridiculous that people here will go to such lengths in order to be respectable and fit in.

  4. It's kind of funny isn't it? This is something that has come up a lot in the last few days with it being very warm here, and I've asked a few people about it. a friend told me that I should get some capri pants (a lot of French guys wear these), but as those are only slightly longer than the shorts I wear, I don't really see why showing my knees is a big deal.

    I still haven't gotten 100% to the bottom of this, but if you hear any other insight in regards to the issue, definitely let me know.

    Thanks for the comment!


  5. it's easy ... most adults look FAR better in long pants than shorts. if it is hot then wear all cotton trousers.

    French ... slim and chic in long pants and tee shirt.
    U.S. ... 99% fat and dumpy in shorts, tank top and sandals or white running shoes.

  6. Excellent post. Makes me think fondly of the first time I walked to the corner store in my yoga pants in Paris. You would have thought I wasn't wearing any pants by the looks I got. Only made that mistake once.

  7. I think it is good to try and assimilate where you live. I am American and hate when other expats have this attitude. In America if immigrants or Mexicans don't try to do something we say they don't try to "assimilate." funny, when americans/europeans are abroad they say they don't want to "conform." such different standards for first world and third world people. you are in Paris, get over it and dress like people in the city do or else be prepared to get stared at and don't whine about it later.

  8. Hello Anonymous,

    I totally agree that the quickest way to gain respect when living abroad is to try one's best to assimilate into the culture. And believe me, if I'm in a situation where I think that wearing shorts might be considered an issue, then I'll play it safe and wear slacks. I also agree that there is a bit of a double standard in terms of being expected to assimilate: I think this is why oftentimes people that immigrate to the U.S. refuse to speak their native tongue with their children. I cannot think of country other than the United States where this is a common practice.

    The point of this article wasn't to point out my inability to adapt, rather it was to point out a cultural difference between what I knew growing up in the United States as opposed to what is a cultural norm in Paris. Shorts are worn by younger people here, though certainly less frequently than in the United States. Once outside of Paris, they are pretty commonplace.

    In essence, I wanted to show that something that would receive little thought in the United States could actually be a big deal here in France. Believe me, if more Americans knew about this coming over to France, fewer would be walking around in shorts.

    Thanks for writing,


  9. I have been here for 4 days and I will say this, this city and country are not worth ever coming back too. There is nothing here outside the historical attractions in my opinion. Sure if all your worried about in life is your looks, the label on your clothes, what people think of you on the outside, and can you act "cool", then damn move here, because this is the place for you. I will never come back to Paris!

    I wore shorts the first day here and one guy said to me, you can be arrested for that. I knodded and said well if the lovely French Police have nothing better to do with their time then be worried about how comfortable I am in this heat, then so be it, but unlike you, I enjoy my life to be comfortable and NOT be revolved around what others think of me. He said nothing and walked away. Anyway, my point is, if you want to get fully dressed to impress for EVERYTHING you do, then so be it, I will dress for comfort. If you want to bitch because I am comfortable and still as educated and good looking as you in your designer clothes sweating as you stand on the metro line...then please...bitch away..I will smile and carry on...wee wee!!!!

  10. Also JP, I agree, sure you wear nice clothes when you KNOW your going to a show, to dinner, etc... but the people here freak over you wearing them period and that's just silly. Also,let me be clear, I am not talking about the entire population of Paris, as I met a few nice folks here. I am talking about those who are so stuck on "fashion", designer labels, status, etc...which is a majority of the population.

    I also agree with you that they are hypocritical. They don't wear shorts, yet thy wear stuff that makes you truely say..WTF!!! Bottom line, I think the French would be much happier people if they got off the "we are prim and proper people - almost trying to act like royalty" and just had some fun and relaxed. :)

  11. I would assume that it's a catholic thing thats become so imbedded within french culture that they've forgotten that it's all right to show a bit of flesh out side of a church.