The first time I got called out for what I was wearing in a newspaper photograph was in 2009 after I’d undergone a “mommy makeover” with a local stylist and then written about it for the Calgary Herald. The stylist had helped me ditch my Lululemon uniform in favour of something more put together — jeans, a blazer and boots. A picture of me sporting the new ensemble accompanied the story. A reader e-mailed me to defend the new-mom Lulu-pant look, itemizing the ways in which my outfit was impractical (can’t play with your kid on the floor, the necklace would get pulled off by little hands, etc.).
The second and most recent time I got called out was Tuesday this week, when a reader wrote a letter to the editor expressing her horror over the shoes I’m wearing in a picture accompanying a Paris travel story that ran in the Calgary Herald on the weekend. The story is about how travellers can still live it up in the City of Lights even though the bachanalian decade that put it on the international travel map (the 1920s) is long past. I write about Hemingway’s Paris and how, though the times and the people have changed, the buildings and the city’s soul remain the same. But, according to one rather catty reader, I should be ashamed of myself for wearing Birkenstocks in Paris. She writes:
“I was stunned to see Lisa Kadane sporting Birkenstock sandals during her swishy stay in the City of Lights.
As a frequent traveller to Paris, I can tell you that no self-respecting Parisian woman would be caught dead in them.”
Meow! Or, as they say in Paris, “Miaou!” Apparently, I just can’t get this fashion thing figured out — I’m always overdressing for playdates but underdressing for strolls along the Seine. I knew, knew knew I should’ve packed my Jimmy Choos. What was I thinking?!
Fortunately, I am not Parisian — I am American and Canadian, obvs (I wore Teva sandals and cut-off jean shorts during my first visit to Paris in 1993 — take that you fashion police Herald reader!) — so I have managed to maintain my self-respect through this epic faux pas.
But there are some points I would like to make that address a larger issue.
1. The day I dressed in my beloved, super-comfy Birks was a sightseeing day. There was walking involved, and Paris is a big city. Our group set off from lunch at the Eiffel Tower to walk along the Seine toward the Pont des Invalides and across the river into a shopping district, a distance of several kilometres. About half way to our destination some in our group flagged a cab because their shoes were too tight or the heels too high or straps were rubbing. Their feet hurt. I do a lot of walking when I travel and there’s nothing worse than wearing uncomfortable shoes or getting a blister. So I brought my Birks. I can walk for miles in them and never have to call a taxi. I don’t think I need to defend myself here but it should be noted I did not wear the sandals out at night to upscale restaurants. Puh-leeze.
2. Since when do you have to dress a certain way in this city or that city? “Oh, my God! You wore a beret in Calgary? Why didn’t you bring a cowboy hat?” Crazy, right? The letter-writer is, literally, “stunned” by my sandals. Her mean-spirited comments seem to imply that I’m somehow not qualified to write about swanky restos or five-star hotels in Paris based on my shoe choice. Let me tell you: You can live it up in Paris — or anywhere, really — in Birkenstocks. Hang out in Berkeley, Calif. on a Friday night and you’ll see what I mean.
3. In my story I reference the novel The Paris Wife. It’s a story written from the viewpoint of Hadley, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, who spent the lean and hungry years with him in Paris. Interestingly, Hadley was no fashionista (at least, according to author Paula McLain), but she and Hem managed to live la vie Parisienne — hanging out at hip cafes and drinking copious amounts of absinthe and having loads of fun in a beautiful and cultured city — regardless. She writes:
“I also didn’t care enough about clothes to do any thinking about what would suit me. I wore what was easiest and required the least maintenance, long wool skirts and shapeless sweaters and wool cloche hats. Ernest didn’t seem to mind. If anything, he thought highly costumed women were ridiculous.”
Hear, hear! Of course, Hadley was American. I’m sure any self-respecting Parisian woman from the 1920s wouldn’t have been caught dead in a long wool skirt and shapeless sweater. Whatever.
My three points bring me to this: does it matter what shoes I wore on that hot summer day in Paris? I think not. Women should dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable, both physically and mentally. Cities do not have dress codes, and the majority of citizens will not judge you based on your wardrobe. I think letters to the editor should take issue with or support the written content in a publication, not what the author of said content is wearing. Surely the letter writer, as a “frequent traveller to Paris,” could have found ways to add to my story in a positive way, by pointing out favourite cafes or sights or hotels or cocktail lounges that I overlooked. But I think the point of her letter was to try and make me feel bad about myself for my shoes, which is both laughable and sad. Why must some women try to bring others down in this way? Does she feel better about herself now for outing me and my Birks? I wish we could move past this kind of fashion war.
It should also be noted that I never noticed any French women giving me stink eye or snickering behind my back about my sandals while in Paris. I guess they are too classy for that, or here’s a thought — maybe they just don’t care. Which is great, because the next time I’m in Paris I am so going to wear my new Croc wedges.