To judge a man's mettle, men's fashion connoisseur George Frazier once said, you need only look down -- at his shoes. If he is wearing a well-polished pair of traditional leather oxfords, broughams, or tassle or Gucci-style loafers in brown, black, or mahogany, then he is on the road to being well-dressed.
Keep it sartorially simple, Coty Award winner Allan Flusser exhorts readers in his 1985 book, Clothes and the Man. Heels "should be low and follow the line of the shoe," and colors are verboten: "Trying to match the color of shoes to the color of the suit is a woman's concept that has no business in the boardroom."
Let us leave aside the thorny question whether the "concept" of color-coordinated shoes and suits has a place in the boardroom when a woman walks into that climate-controlled chamber. The issue here is not color: It's comfort and practicality.
A man has, according to Flusser, "approximately seven" styles from which to choose his business footwear. Shoes with holes punched into the top and those without holes are placed in separate categories, as are loafer styles that differ by no more than the type of decorative piece that adorns the uppers. Generalizing, you might say that a man has two basic choices for the office: tie shoes (with or without holes) and slip-ons (with buckles, tassles, or nothing on the top). He puts on a pair of socks, and he's off and running.
Unless his shoe is the wrong size, or the elastic in the top of his sock has worn out, nothing in a man's footwear keeps him from stepping smartly in the business world. He can run for the bus. He can step into shallow puddles with impunity. He can walk bravely, even indifferently, over sidewalk and sewer grates. He laughs as he dashes ahead of the crowds at lunchtime. A man and his wingtips can make a formidable trio.
Not so the woman -- with her pumps and sling-backs, sandals and open-toes. Outfitted in footwear ("shoes" is almost too substantial a word) that is slender of heel, narrow of vamp, and skimpy of upper, she hesitates at escalators and curbsides. She detours around pebbly pavement and subway grilles. Cobblestones are deadly, if quaint.
Winters are especially vicious when there's nothing between leg and wind but a film of nylon or Lycra. You will rarely see a woman in her heels running for a bus. If you do, you should avert your eyes; it's not a pretty sight.
The pressure a lady lawyer feels from clients and deadlines, or a female secretary from her boss, is nothing compared to the pressure on her toes, which is matched only by that exerted on her stomach by her control-top panty hose.
As anyone who has been to a shopping mall or peered under a lavatory stall in a ladies' lounge can tell you, shoes for women come in an infinitely broad variety.
There are spike heels, reverse-pyramid heels, and platform heels. A woman's shoe can have a "silhouette," which refers to the tall and slender effect created by high-heeled sandals (at least when their shape is not distorted by fat feet).
According to How To Dress Well, a book published in 1981 by fashion consultant Priscilla Hecht Grumet, "By general agreement, high heels add sensuousness to the look and movement of a woman, however unsound they may be medically." And in Executive Style, fashion experts Diana Lewis Jewell and Mary B. Fiedorek write, "There's no excuse for wearing clunky, squat heels. Try always to choose shoes that are feminine, as well as comfortable. Look for slimming, elongating touches like sling backs or open toes." But Grumet warns, with respect to slingbacks and high heels: "To assure comfort, practice walking in them at home."
Thousands -- for all we can know, millions -- of women have spurned Grumet's advice to "practice walking," but not by insisting on comfortable business shoes. Instead, the solution has been to acquire two pair of shoes instead of one: For these women, the stylish heel or sandal or sling-back has become strictly an item of office wear, suitable only for proud display while mincing around carpeted corridors. Because these shoes do not lend themselves to walking, they are packed up every morning, noon, and evening -- in short, anytime the owner has to walk outside the building or farther than the length of a hallway -- in favor of running shoes.
Everywhere you look, except perhaps in deepest, darkest Wall Street, or in the unforgiving glare of Rodeo Drive, women have forsaken "silhouette" for the springy sensation of tennis shoes and panty hose. Sometimes they add an extra cushion of tennis sock, as if the idea were to treat the foot with special consideration in penance for what lies ahead at the office.
(Of course some women, but only those with a great deal of self-confidence or absolutely no sense of style, have taken to wearing the business suit or dress and running shoe combination throughout the day, while they word-process or practice law or compute figures.)
This exchange of footwear during the day to suit the activity, however, is not a fail-safe system, and carrying around an extra pair of shoes is cumbersome. Even those who wear their running shoes, panty hose, and socks all day are sure to have a pair of business shoes somewhere close at hand, just in case. Besides, they've not solved the panty hose disability. And the look is, to put it gently, incongruous.
In a day, according to Esquire magazine's "Man at His Best," a man walks an average of 14,000 steps. That's the equivalent of two trips around the world in a lifetime. With their shorter strides, women must walk at least that many steps, just to keep up. Between their shoes and their panty hose, women are barely scraping by.
There is no quick and easy fix to this dilemma but there's some cause for optimism. I, and other lawyers like myself, wear trouser suits to work, with socks and loafers or oxfords on my feet. The suits are hard to find, however, which is why I am still regrettably familiar with panty hose and "ladies' footwear."
Jane Pauley wore kneesocks and handsome flats with skirts on national television last fall, not even hiding her legs behind a console. Fashion designers take note: She looked great, and the rest of us would like similar ensembles.
And Jane, maybe you could wear a trouser suit sometime in the near future; chances are you'll start a trend and remind merchandisers that Katharine Hepburn is not the only woman who wants to dress as practically as a man and look good at it.
Deborah Levy is a Washington lawyer and writer.