When it’s 75 degrees or hotter, it’s totally acceptable to wear shorts. Unless you’re in France or are French.
According to France, shorts are not cool, they’re revealing. Shorts are not comfortable, dresses are comfortable. Shorts are not timeless, they’re for the finite amount of time that one spends at the beach, or as a child.
Despite having heavily researched packing lists before moving to France, I did not know this. Out of blissful ignorance, I wore regular, 4-inch inseam shorts around Paris for one blistering hot day. The reception was poor.
Besides lots of staring and dismissive looks, the first clear condemnation of my shorts came from a little girl on the Métro, who tugged on her mother’s skirt and pointed at me accusatorily. The mother whispered a few words back, which read along the lines of “don’t dress like her.” The second condemnation was in university class, from a French friend. “You’re wearing shorts?” she said. “Yes,” I replied, “It’s hot.” She exchanged a smile with another girl, and nodded emphatically back at me, grinning like I was an idiot. The third condemnation came from a homeless man, who yelled something vulgar at me as I walked by, which was a new phenomenon for me during daylight hours.
In a lengthy discussion with my middle-aged French tutor Cécile, I learned that French people don’t wear shorts. It’s perfectly okay to wear a low-cut top, Cécile explained. There is nothing wrong with cleavage. Thighs, on the other hand, are sexual. “They are for your lover or the beach,” she informed me politely.
According to Cécile, men and women wear pants in all weather, and they never complain. Women wear skirts and maxi-dresses, and even then must cover up. I made a joke about how French people wear scarves even in the summer. Without a trace of irony, Cécile pulled a scarf from her purse, which she had brought to lend decency to her spaghetti-strap maxi-dress. Funnily enough, my host mother gave me a scarf as a birthday present. (My birthday is in May. Needless to say, I didn’t wear it until the following September.)
The topic of shorts vs. pants is hotly contested between the French and American tourists. USA Today travel tips advises women headed to France, “consider leaving the shorts and tennis shoes at home, as most Parisian women don’t wear them.” It also recommends bringing “neutral-colored skirts and dresses in light fabrics” and “silk scarves.”
For Americans, vacation is the time to trade in work clothes for casual, comfortable attire, which often means shorts. “I hear the comfort excuse all the time,” Paris-based fashion writer Elisabeth Fourmont told Huffington Post, “and I don’t buy it. … You can be just as comfortable in a sundress.”
The unofficial shorts-ban is not stylistic, it’s cultural. Shorts are not conservative or formal enough for the French. “Parisian women know that they won’t be allowed into nicer shops, churches or sophisticated venues while wearing them,” says USA Today travel trips.
Recently, the pants vs. shorts conflict has become heated and, in one case, dangerous. In June, an 18-year-old French girl named Maude Vallet posted a photo on Facebook of herself wearing shorts, with a caption overlaying the image, reading, “hello, I’m a slut.” She posted the photo after being harassed, followed, and spat on by a group of girls she didn’t know in Toulon. Relaying her conversation with the girls, she asked them, “‘why treat me like a slut for I’m wearing shorts, even though there are men who walk around shirtless in the middle of town.’” Vallet writes that the girls responded, “‘well because you’re a woman and you need to respect that, you dirty slut’”. Two weeks later, over 100 people in Toulon traded their pants for shorts and marched in solidarity with Vallet with the hashtag #TousEnShort.
One day of dirty looks in Paris resulted in the shorter shorts getting tucked away in the back of my dresser, but the longer shorts remained a wardrobe staple. I refused to be hot in pants. Instead, I resigned myself to a different kind of heat: catcalls from homeless and drunk men, endless shade thrown by French peers, and side eyes from skeptical mothers on public transportation. While wearing a romper in a train station, a woman I didn’t know tapped me on the shoulder to inform me (in French), “your ass is hanging out,” which it certainly was not.
Conforming to a culture’s customs is, when within reason, respectful, so I mostly conformed. I stopped smiling at strangers, wore dark colors, didn’t eat while walking.
However, totally adopting another country’s culture shouldn’t be considered mandatory. And maybe it was rude to not adapt pants habits to the current culture. Possibly I increased the risk of assault and harassment (51% of French people believe that a woman accepts both of those risks by wearing a mini skirt). I probably offended a few people along my strolls through nice neighborhoods, upscale stores, and into churches. But wearing shorts in France is on the whole, totally fine, just as it’s perfectly fine for all the French people in my French-American to wear pants all summer.
Though I disagree with my French co-workers’ choice of wearing pants to an amusement park on an 86-degree day, from the comfort of my shorts, I respect it. #TousEnShorts