Packing for a trip can be a headache. Packing for Paris can be even more so. Space is limited. Virtually every airline now charges an arm and a leg for slightly oversized luggage. Besides, I don’t recommend tracking a massive suitcase through the metro and cobblestone streets to anyone. The elevators, when there are any, are among the smallest you will ever see. The weather is always changing. But more importantly, Paris is one of the fashion capitals of the world, and Parisians will take your sartorial choices seriously. Not only will dressing sloppily mark you forever as a tourist, but it can also affect how people will treat you during your visit.
That’s enough to make anyone break into a cold sweat, especially if reading Vogue and attentively following the latest fashion trends is not part of your daily routine. Thankfully, planning on what to wear when traveling to Paris doesn’t have to be complicated. If you follow a couple of simple rules, the chances are that you have all the clothes you need to dress appropriately for your next trip to Paris right in your closet.
I have visited Paris multiple times in all seasons, and I’m starting to have the whole suitcase ordeal down to a science. I understand the desire, the envy even, to look as flawlessly put together as those darn French ladies but let me just break it down for you in one word – okay, two: SIMPLE and CLASSIC.
That’s great news if you don’t feel like lugging the totality of your closet on the other side of the Atlantic just in case. In my opinion, Paris is one of those places where a capsule wardrobe built on a few tried-and-true pieces will serve you best. You may even want to keep it up once you head back home.
Coco Chanel once said: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”
That’s a good policy when you are packing your suitcase for Paris as well. Without further ado, here is what you should keep in mind when packing for Paris.
Stick to a neutral color scheme
Paris is not a very colorful city, and it is part of its charm. It is a lovely mix of neutral tones. There is the cream color of the stone walls, the famous grey roofs, the darker shades of the cobblestone streets. Even the gardens are pathed with broad alleys of crushed stones in camaieus of whites and browns. It seems like the Parisians get their inspiration for dressing up from the city itself.
You will rarely see them dressed up in bright colors. Instead, you can expect a seemingly infinite declination of all the shades of greys, blues, whites, creams, and browns. And when in doubt, stick to black. That’s great news for travelers since it makes the ongoing mix-and-match game required by a limited suitcase a lot easier. Patterns are subdued at best. Most Parisians stick to solids. You may also have that stereotype in your head of the French wearing a lot of stripes – that one is actually true. However, that’s about as fantasist as it goes.
To brighten up the scheme, you can choose one or two accent colors. Add a bright cardigan, a patterned blouse, maybe a pair of earrings or a scarf in those colors and add one at the time when building your outfits.
Dress appropriately for the occasion
No matter what stereotypes would lead us to believe, Parisians are anything but extravagant when it comes to their outfits. However, it seems like they always dressed up for the occasion – even if the occasion consists of picking up croissants at the bakery across the street. (In fact, I just finished a book by 4 Parisian women called How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are. It opens with daily observations that are to be read out loud each evening, including:
“Always be f*!$able: when standing in line at the bakery on a Sunday morning, buying champagne in the middle of the night, or even picking the kids up from school. You never know.”
You will rarely see Parisians wearing clothes that don’t seem to belong in the setting where they find themselves.
Athletic clothes stay at the gym, beach attire at the beach. Anything too short or skin-tight will be frowned upon if you are not having a wild night out at the club. You can leave the athleisure trends at home. A casual outfit in Paris includes a well-cut pair of jeans, a simple T-shirt (no graphics or lettering) or blouse, and a pair of flat shoes you would not wear to run a marathon. And never, ever wear anything in the street you could have slept in the night before.
You are in Paris to explore and enjoy yourself. Make sure you are comfortable while doing so. Nothing spoils the memories of a trip like the wrong pair of shoes or forgetting appropriate outerwear.
Visiting Paris will likely mean a lot of walking. There are a lot of stairs: they are everywhere in the metro, but also parts of the city like Montmartre. Many of the streets have narrow, uneven sidewalks, and some of the most picturesque places in the city are all cobblestones. Finally, no visit to Paris would be complete without exploring some of its beautiful gardens.
I can’t stress enough how critical wearing appropriate footwear can be. A trip to Paris is no occasion to pull out a pair of brand-new shoes either, bring a well-broken in favorite instead. No matter how strong the temptation might be, resist putting your favorite pair of running shoes in your suitcase unless you actually intend to go running while in Paris. You may as well be sporting a giant “tourist” sign on your back.
Pack a pair of close-toed, tried-and-true walking shoes that are also water-resistant. Depending on your style and the season, bring a pair of comfortable ballet flats or ankle boots that can be dressed up or down. Some Parisians are also starting to sport more athletic-inspired shoes like Converse and white leather sneakers. Those are great for daytime exploring but bring a pair of dressier shoes if you are planning on visiting a fancier restaurant or checking out the Paris nightlife.
Outerwear can also make or break your trip to Paris. The weather varies widely, especially in the fall and in the spring. The best policy is to check the weather ahead of time. However, don’t forget to bring a good coat, the more classic, the better. A waterproof trench coat in the spring and the summer or a wool peacoat in the colder months is your best ally and will help you to fit right in. A foldable umbrella won’t take much room in your bag but it an save a rainy day.
Paris rarely deals with the extreme temperatures you can encounter elsewhere. Nevertheless, the weather can be widely unpredictable. You are never safe from a stray shower or facing freezing temperatures one day and sweltering heat the next. With limited space in your suitcase, the best policy is to pack clothes you can easily layer as needed. That’s where all those neutral colors will come in handy.
I love cotton dresses (in the summer) and sweater dresses (in the winter). They travel well in a suitcase and can take you from day-to-night. Add a pair of tights or leggings and a cardigan if it’s chilly, and you are all set. Dark wash well-cut jeans are a must. French women gravitate towards ankle length, skinny or straight leg, and mid-to-high waist ones. You can wear them with a t-shirt on hot days, an elegant blouse at night and a chunky sweater if the weather isn’t on your side. I am also always raving about my scarf collection, which I find to be the best way to warm up an outfit. It also adds a touch of color and make you look put together, which is a nice extra.
Choose tailored, classic pieces.
French women (and Parisian women especially) often live in tiny apartments with limited closet space. However, they always manage to look so chic. How? Their wardrobes are very curated. On top of the mix-and-match and a neutral color scheme I discussed above, they invest in key pieces they can wear year after year, and that works great on many occasions. Make no mistake; they also fall victim to fast fashion. However, they don’t hesitate to wear their high-street clothes with high-end staples that elevate the whole look.
Some of the staples you will find in every French woman’s closet include a black dress, a white shirt, nice jeans, a smart blazer, comfortable black boots and pumps, and a tailored coat in neutral colors. Incidentally, those are also great pieces to bring on a trip to Paris and to build your entire wardrobe upon. If you have always wanted to splurge on one of these items but never found the occasion, now is the time to do so!
Packing for Paris by Season
I hope you found this packing guide for Paris helpful! Have you ever been to Paris before? What is one thing you are glad to have brought? Is there anything you wish you had with you? Do share!
Illustration commissioned from Linden Eller.
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