I’ll be visiting Europe for the first time this summer and need advice for stylish walking shoes. I mainly wear dresses, but if I wear ballet flats while walking all day, my feet tend to swell up (not an issue with sneakers, but no way). Do you have any suggestions for a more closed shoe that wouldn’t out me as l’américaine? — Jennifer, Seattle
By your shoes, they shall know you. I’m not entirely kidding. Shoes may not be the windows to the soul, but for a long time they were the source of national stereotype.
Germans, it was said, were the travelers in sandals and white athletic socks. You could tell an Italian banker because he was the one in brown shoes, no matter what color his suit. The British, on the other hand, went around intoning “no brown in town.” American tourists wore sneakers.
But that was then! Between the explosion of sneaker culture, the “fashionization” of Birkenstocks and the general rise of comfort clothing, those old lines have started to blur. If Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, can wear sneakers to a meeting in the Oval Office, and Serena Williams can wear them to the Met Gala, Americans can wear them in Europe. So, for that matter, can Europeans. (So, for that matter, do Europeans.)
Indeed, sneakers and Birks are by no means the giveaways they once were. They are pretty much an integral part of every wardrobe, not to mention every designer collection on Avenue Montaigne. So don’t be so quick to dismiss them.
According to Dana Thomas, an author (and New York Times contributor) who has lived in Paris for more than two decades, the only footwear that really screams “tourist” these days is Crocs. Also, those shoes so beloved of the outdoor rec world, Chacos and Keens.
It’s not that Chacos and Keens necessarily identify you as American, but they definitely identify you as belonging to a certain tribe of crunchy nonurbanites. Or wannabe nonurbanites. Even if brands like Gucci had a brief flirtation with the whole sector, it’s kind of like walking around with a sign over your head flashing, “Hut hiker in the house.” Or, “Which way to Mont Blanc?”
Which is really the point about such footwear now. Once upon a time, generalizations could be made about entire genres of shoes and those who wore them, but the situation is now much more nuanced. Sneakers remain the most comfortable footwear for extended city rambles, and to reject them wholesale is to bite the hand that feeds you (or to blister the foot that walks you). But while wearing sneakers will no longer brand you as a tourist no matter where you go, the kind of sneaker you wear does matter.
Jon Caramanica, the resident sneakerhead of The New York Times, notes that sneaker silhouettes — like silhouettes in general — tend to be slimmer in Europe than in the United States, so swap your high-tops and other basketball shoes for low-top running shoes.
In the game of visual free association, the Adidas Samba or Onitsuka Tiger Mexico 66 tends to trigger thoughts of cool-girl fashion tribes, whereas New Balance 550s send the mind to advertising or creative directors. Vejas spark assumptions of eco-warrior chic. And then there are Supergas, which are favored by both Chiara Ferragni (the Italian equivalent of a Kardashian) and Catherine, the Princess of Wales.
Yup: Italian influencer royalty and British royalty. What more inspiration could you need to put your best foot forward?
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.