Best Foot Forward
The high heel
No pain, no symbolic gain.
As we enter the holiday season with its great gobs of merchandise on display, I find that one item alone is still capable of tempting me. Fashion cycles may come and go, and I may grow weary of shopping in all other respects, but when it comes to shoes, I remain passionately acquisitive. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, “To be tired of shoes is to be tired of life.”
Since I am not alone in my shoe fetish, I have concluded that shoes are emblematic of something more than themselves. They are an index to civilization. After all, at its origins, the shoe had no pretensions beyond protection of the foot from the vagaries of temperature and terrain. In medieval times, foot coverings were mostly rags and strips of leather, sometimes abetted by a thick wooden overshoe, the patten, which raised the wearer above the mud and muck. With so much else to face — plague, famine, mud — people back then weren’t in the best position to pay attention to their shoes.
But society has evolved, and shoes along with it. To those who find an interest in shoes to be frivolous, my response is: “Get out of the Middle Ages!” One of the signs of the Renaissance, that rebirth of learning and culture, was the advent of a life for shoes. The era saw the introduction of the chopine, the platform shoe, to which the 1970s owes so much of its tacky charm. In the 1500s, two-part shoes appeared, with stiff soles, supple leather tops, and heels that were attached rather than added as secondary parts. If you want to see true shoe mania, check out the footgear in the court of Louis XIV. The Sun King was a fashion nut, and “Louis heels” became the rage, at first more for men than women. Louis decreed that only aristocrats could wear talon rouges (red heels), in a Louboutin-ish move avant la lettre. Eventually, women followed Louis’ lead and exaggerated the form, taking the heels to greater and greater heights. At one point, women’s heels were so high that wearers had to balance themselves with canes, Given that hair was also big and dresses cumbersome, one can imagine that simple activities — walking from room to room, no less going to the bathroom — would have been an ordeal.
You can feel a revolution brewing just looking at the shoes that followed from Louis XIV’s fashion mania. Marie Antoinette is said to have gone to the guillotine in two-inch heels — even in the face of death, she couldn’t abide wearing flats. Napoleon banned high heels, presumably owing to their aristocratic associations, though also, possibly, to avoid looking like a pigmy in proximity to a fashionable lady. In America, Puritans condemned heels as seductive accessories of the devil (the heel said to resemble a cloven hoof), and decreed that any woman wearing them should be tried as a witch.
Nowadays, shoes are less linked to class, politics, and religion — though vestiges of these things linger. If you wear Birkenstocks, let’s face it, we know all we need to know about you. You can get a nice-looking pair of shoes for peanuts at Payless, but a shoe aficionado can tell that they’re cheap at a glance and put an end to your upwardly mobile aspirations. Better to go to Loehmann’s or the DSW sales rack, where you may find a pair of Manolos drastically reduced, even if a size too small. Most women will weather serious pain — if not guillotining or burning at the stake — if the shoes are nice enough.
Some people (mostly men) don’t understand what other people (mostly women) see in shoes, so let me explain for the uninitiated.
To begin, shoes are, despite being subject to fashionable trends, timeless accessories in their connection to a portion of the anatomy that remains largely unchanged once it has reached maturity. (This is not counting the half-size increments that occur with the birth of a child and that, in my case at least, appear to reverse themselves as time passes. Twenty years after my last child was born, my foot has begun to inch back to its original size; I figure that if I can tough it out to the age of 90, I will fit into the shoes I wore to my junior high school dance.)
The point here is that, unlike the body’s torso and that even more unforgiving arena, the face, which remind us of time’s sickle whenever we look in the mirror, the foot does not rub our nose in our mortality. As a result, shoes can be purchased without putting the aging body into view, a fact capitalized on in shoe stores where the mirrors reach only to mid-calf. In this, shoes have a kinship with jewelry, another item that doesn’t take physical change into account. One of the reasons why jewelry is such a popular gift from husbands to wives is that the men can simply point and purchase. Shoes are a bit more complicated since they involve remembering the recipient’s size. (I do know a man who buys his wife shoes for her birthday, but, then, he’s a very smart lawyer who can remember that she’s a size 7.5 and likes anything from Charles Jourdan.)
Shoes are a profound accessory for additional reasons. They represent the foundation, literally speaking, of the self. They support us as we go to and fro in our daily lives, and can facilitate or impede that movement. It may seem that ease and comfort would be the desired attributes here, but not necessarily. In movement, as with other endeavors, difficulty can have its advantages. Sometimes a careful, high-heeled step can empower, while a fast, sneakered walk can diminish. Does one want to be regal or ragtag? Shoes are the costumes not just of the feet but of the persona that inhabits them.
Painful shoes are generally bad for the carrying on of activity, but there are exceptions even to this. A few pinched toes can produce a dressed-up feeling that is not without its value. And to feel one’s shoes is also to feel the fact of walking — to become, in Zen terminology, more aware of the dynamics of motion and more cognizant of where one is going. It is a stretch, I suppose, to write an apologia for uncomfortable shoes, but it’s true that for women, shoes can function like sackcloth and ashes in their homage to a desired image of self. If artists tell us that they went without sleep in the pursuit of beauty, no one argues with them, but if women say they got their bunions in pursuit of beauty, the response is less sympathetic. But why? I have seen older women with gnarled and calloused feet boast of the high heels they wore in their youth. Those disfigured feet evoke a dashing former self-presentation much as a dancer’s disfigured feet evoke former pirouettes. To have once walked some 50 blocks from the old B. Altman to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 4-inch heels, as many women did in the 1950s, was an accomplishment. I think of those women with awe when I put my heels in a bag and don espadrilles (I will not wear sneakers on principle) for a trek of half that length.
Storing shoes, if you have a lot of them, is a creative exercise in itself. The shoe bags sold in the bed-and-bath stores are problematic; I don’t know any serious shoe person who uses them. They make it hard to see the shoes; they gather dust in their little pouches; and they take up too much room in the closet if you have a lot of shoes (and the demographic I’m addressing here has lots, by definition). I, like many I know, prefer shoebox storage. This method, which I learned from my mother, involves careful labeling of the shoe boxes and placing them on top of the closet, assuming there is room there to pile them at least three boxes high. Accuracy of labeling is crucial, and it is important to use your own short-hand nomenclature as a reminder of what the shoe looks like and how it can be worn; otherwise, older shoes may sink into the obscurity of the closet and be forgotten. “2-bl navy pmps,” (two-block navy pumps), for example, indicates how long I can expect to walk in the shoes without serious pain; “bge lg wdg” (beige long-skirt wedge) reminds me that the shoe looks best with a longer skirt; “sit hls” tells me said shoe should only be worn when no walking is required. Other labels such as “bl-gr picnic” and “Gger pmps” (black and green shoes worn to family picnic and pumps like the ones in that Ginger Rogers movie) reflect my personal associations with the shoes I own. I also have literary associations: “Pass India,” for example — lace-up retro shoes — are what I think Adele Quested would have worn in E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India, and “Anna” — purple velvet shoes with a thin strap — are what I imagine Anna Karenina might have had on when she first met Count Vronsky.
Although I risk overstating my point, I would argue that shoes are like poems. They tell stories of a sort, but in a distilled, emotive way. It is hard, for this reason, to part with certain shoes, even if they have grown shabby or out of style. They link not just to an era but to a feeling: They supported the self through pivotal events.
When I was in college, the issue of Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection hit the news and there was a great deal of clucking at the horrors of such conspicuous consumption. I know that Imelda had a role in the tyrannical regime that beggared her people. Still, it seemed unfair to focus on the woman’s shoes. One can be a very caring and generous person and still accumulate a lot of shoes. Moreover, shoes aren’t all that expensive, comparatively speaking (what if she’d collected medieval manuscripts or, as someone on an Imelda chat group pointed out, rare coins or stamps?). My sister will tell you that you can get Ferragamos for a very good price on eBay, if you really look.
As with so much in life, as one studies shoes one becomes more discerning about them. Small differences in the quality of the leather, the height and angle of the heel, the suppleness of the sole, and of course, that most important of elements, the shape of the toe, all conspire to make two pairs that seem identical to the layman’s eye (i.e. my husband’s) look utterly different — one mundane, the other fabulous; one OK for every day, the other only proper for special occasions.
I still have a pair of my mother’s red 4-inch heels, which I use as bookends in my study. When I look at those shoes, I recall my mother striding into a room or across a street — no one could walk with more energy and zest. She was an Olympic high-heel wearer and would scoff at my wimpy inability to wear heels for long treks. When she became ill and could no longer wear her beautiful high-heeled shoes, my sister and I held a garage sale where we set out her vast collection in their labeled boxes. (While others might regret not inheriting their mother’s ear for music or green thumb, my sister and I regretted not inheriting our mother’s shoe size.) Late in the afternoon of the sale, a chic woman in a leather mini-skirt arrived, took one glance at the shoes inside the boxes, and bought them all at a sweep. The expression of joy on her face as she gathered up her spoils remains with me to this day. I like to think of her striding into a room or crossing a street in my mother’s shoes, carrying on that lofty legacy. • 6 December 2011
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University and host of The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 300 public television stations across the country. She is author of four nonfiction books and four bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest book is What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Jack the Ripper and Henry James.
Photograph by Thomas Hawk / CC BY-NC 2.0