It is no coincidence that a pair of shoes figures prominently in the relationship between Cinderella and her prince. Women have long adored shoes of all kinds, recognizing their ability to alter moods, announce authority and curry sexual favor. Is it any wonder that a pair of glass slippers could be used to broker a marriage proposal?
In the grisliest telling of the fairy tale, by the Brothers Grimm, Cinderella's wicked stepsisters hack off their toes and slice at their heels, so desperate are they to squeeze their substantial feet into the dainty magical slipper. Many a dissertation has examined the subtext of this tale and the dangers of placing the responsibility for one's happiness on a flaky prince, a sketchy fairy godmother and an ill-fitting shoe.
Yet despite all the warnings from feminists and mothers, modern women who look askance at illusions about princes regularly abuse their feet in ways that would make a podiatrist blanch. Who among us has not encountered a woman willing to risk hammertoes, corns and bunions on her peasant feet in exchange for the fleeting pleasure of walking into a cocktail party in a pair of needle-nose Sergio Rossi reptile pumps purchased on markdown?
The holiday season brings with it endless occasions for wearing splendidly impractical shoes. And the spring 2003 collections are filled with candy-colored mules, multi-buckle sandals, metallic slingbacks and backbreaking pumps. Women, if the past is a guide, will wear them all, which is why Seventh Avenue loves women's shoes. When a fashion conglomerate wants to expand, it shops for shoe companies. When a designer wants to widen his name recognition, he searches for a shoe license. For all its dowdy sweaters and pleated chiffon, Prada is, above all else, a shoe and handbag house. Gucci is a leather goods firm.
Women will tolerate discomfort and a slowed gait for a splendid shoe. Many will speak of these shoes with an affection often reserved for a beloved pet, in the hushed tones used to describe fine art or with the passion auto aficionados exude in describing the classic cars they own but cannot drive.
"I actually bought a pair of shoes at Bergdorf [Goodman] about four years ago that I couldn't wear. They were so beautiful. They were slingbacks and I can't wear them. I walk right out of them," says Lynda Erkiletian, the owner and president of T.H.E. Artist Agency in Washington. "I have literally put them on in my dressing room and said, 'Jeez, I wish I could wear them outside.' "
The shoes are Italian, intended for the evening, pale pink and covered in beadwork. "I'd never done anything like that before," Erkiletian says. "But I could rationalize it."
Not history, Seventh Avenue, self-analysis, "Sex and the City" nor the corner cobbler can satisfactorily explain a modern woman's fascination with shoes. American men spent $13 billion on about 284 million pairs of shoes by October this year, according to NPD Fashionworld, a research company that tracks retail sales. So why did an inner voice drive women to spend nearly $16 billion on 545 million pairs?
The answer, perhaps, lies with mythmakers who have infused shoes with magic. From the moment a little girl slips into her first pair of Mary Janes -- the kind with the delightful grosgrain ribbons -- she is advised through fantasies and legends that shoes are a magnet for Prince Charming, a reward for a job well done and a talisman of individual power. Not even a tiara can compete with that.
In times of lucidity, women will proclaim their admiration for the Aerosole, the Naturalizer, the Birkenstock, the Arche, the Mephisto. Teenage girls may keep a wardrobe of sneakers. Graying hippies may swear by their clogs and beach bums may love their flip-flops. But these brands and styles, known for their comfort and practicality, are not the shoes that make women gasp in delight, cause men to stare in admiration or send drag queens into a swoon. Glory be to the slingback, the mule and the kitten heel pump.
"I'd have to say that probably of my three favorite shoe designers, Manolo Blahnik is my favorite. He's number one bar none. He designs a very sexy and comfortable shoe," Erkiletian says. "Second to that would be Prada. I like them for the expressiveness. The pink suede mule they're doing now -- with black slacks -- it speaks. It says something. Jimmy Choo would be third. I think they're also very comfortable but they usually have a lower heel and they have a lower price point, but not by much."
There is undeniable, physical pleasure in shoe shopping. Oh, to sit down on a velvet tuffet and peel off worn and cracked loafers and glide into a fresh pair of pumps in which the insole feels like a cloud and the sweet smell of new leather wafts into the air and tickles the nose. Is it really an overstatement to describe the pleasure of footwear as distracting, all-consuming, orgasmic? Perhaps. But women's shoes -- unlike a man's captoes, monk straps and wingtips -- are awfully pretty. So very, very pretty.
New shoes represent a fresh beginning. They signify the start of a journey and alter the manner in which it will be traveled. Consider a pencil-slim, three-inch heel with its ability to transform the whole body. Forget for a moment those words of warning from any podiatrist worth his or her degree, do not consider aching knees or the pressure on the lower back. Just stand for a moment and consider the figure with the elongated legs, the flexed calves, the suggestive tilt of the derriere as if it is being served up for proper admiration on a silver platter. Let she who is without shoe lust cast the first stone.
In a 1994 issue of Allure magazine, the actress Ann Magnuson wrote: "The bones in my ankles cracked. . . . Hobbling down the avenue, I became acutely aware of . . . my body. My breasts jutted forward, while my back was severely arched. . . . Are these shoes disempowering? Do they enslave us? Are we rendered helpless by wearing them? The answer is yes! Yes! Of course! What other point would there be in wearing them?"
A woman's love affair with shoes should not be confused with the mostly male sexual fetish for them. Freudian theory suggests assorted explanations for men's fascination with high heels, most of which focus on the notion of the foot as the penis and the shoe as the vagina. But one need not veer very far down that path to agree that there is sexual satisfaction in watching an attractive woman walk down the street atop a pair of three-inch heels.
But what is the thrill for women? Why can they find as much pleasure in a new pair of ballet flats as in three-inch mules? Why is it that, to quote my wise mother, "A woman can't have too many pairs of black shoes."
It may be that women have fetishized shoes in other ways. "Fetishism is not only 'about' sexuality; it is also very much about power and perception," writes the fashion historian Valerie Steele in "Fetish: Fashion, Sex & Power." Shoes are items of indulgence that women have always bought for themselves. More public than lingerie, less expensive than a diamond and without the politics of a fur, good shoes signify that one has arrived.
In "The Silence of the Lambs," Hannibal Lecter made this observation when Clarice Starling came to interrogate him: "You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste."
A woman's shoes are the foundation of her public persona, the point from which everything else rises. Shoes may be classified as accessories, but more often they are the main event. Few elements of a wardrobe can so quickly alter the way in which an ensemble is read as a pair of shoes, which is why a woman can justify having four different pairs of black leather boots in her closet. A woman in a simple black sheath and sturdy oxfords comes across as practical and solid. If she exchanges the oxfords for strappy sandals, her ensemble crackles with sex appeal. Wear pumps with the sheath and the message is professional. Choose knee-high boots and she's a bit of a hipster. Shoes are the fashion equivalent of talking points. They keep an ensemble on track, defining its agenda.
When the tornado swept Dorothy and Toto to Oz and their bungalow flattened the Wicked Witch of the East, the pigtailed heroine was rewarded with the villain's glittering red pumps. When Dorothy strutted down the yellow brick road it was inevitable that she would pick up a motley band of admirers.
As Dorothy battled flying monkeys trying to get back home to Kansas, all she really had to do was click her heels three times. A pair of shoes can take a woman home, evoking nostalgic memories like few other items in her closet. A woman will remember the first shoes that her parents let her select: a pair of white go-go boots, purple Mary Janes, rubber platform sandals or red iridescent ballet slippers. She will recall her first pair of heels and how grown-up she felt, maybe even how they made her feel sexy and womanly for the first time. She secretly hoped that her black patent leather shoes did reflect up.
Shoes are a prop in defining sexuality, as evocative as a first bra.
They can be a statement of character -- one that may be either true or false. In Adams Morgan, a footwear boutique uses its name to make this pronouncement: Wild Women Wear Red Shoes. Footwear is not subtle when delivering a message. It's like cars in that way. (Wild men drive turbocharged El Caminos.) And if a woman is not careful she can easily overstate her point. Surly women with mullets wear white pumps with three-inch heels. And women who make their home on street corners wear thigh-high boots.
Shoes also can express religiosity and an ascetic sensibility. A few blocks away from Macy's in Herald Square sits the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Tucked down a narrow brick corridor is Sebastian's Sandals, a cobbler's shop run by Sebastian Tobin, a Franciscan monk. He crafts handmade sandals based on religious traditions and blesses them with a brand of the Tau cross. His shoes are alluring in their plainness. And if there is another advantage to Tobin's sandals, which have the rough-hewn look of a Polo and Prada mix, it is this: "Usually, my shoe is a size smaller because I'm making it to your foot."
Shoes are a measure of vanity. They have signified narcissism at least since Hans Christian Andersen wrote his cautionary fairy tale "The Red Shoes" in which a vain girl is forced to pirouette and leap in her red shoes until she dances to the door of death. How uncomfortable might a woman willingly be for the satisfaction of cutting a striking figure in evening pumps?
Cooling Their Heels on West 54th
Shoes do not make a woman feel fat or look sallow. They are egalitarian in their sizing and merchandising. A woman who may have to shop in a plus size store or the petite department to buy her clothes can swim in the mainstream when she's on the hunt for fine shoes.
Shoes are among the least expensive ways in which to update a wardrobe. A scandalously silly pair of shoes can go more places than a whimsical garment. There is a shoe for every mood. Shoes can bridge the generation gap, inciting silliness in both mothers and daughters.
Twice yearly, a multi-generational footwear feeding frenzy erupts in the small townhouse on West 54th Street in Manhattan where the Manolo Blahnik boutique is located and where women line up for the biannual sale. The store can always be spotted from a distance due to the crowd of waiting women -- and dutiful husbands, boyfriends and diva men who want to know if the Carolyne slingbacks come in a size 12. At the last sale this summer, the boutique moved almost 700 pairs of shoes -- regularly priced at more than $400 each -- in a day, said George Malkemus, president of Manolo Blahnik USA.
Barbara Haley came in from Long Island for the sale and was waiting in line with her daughter, who, in the manner of an unrepentant addict, declined to share her name. At the last sale, Haley walked away with a pair of burgundy alligator boots that at $1,750 were about half their original price. That is enough to make a shoe freak erupt in a cold sweat on a 90-degree day.
Haley pulled out a little purple battery-operated fan and proceeded to muse about shoes. "It's always shoes and bags. I love them. I rotate them. I take care of them." How many pairs does she have? "I will never confess that to anybody."
Said the daughter: Taking care of shoes "is like practicing taking care of kids. . . . If I have twins, it'll be even better!"
About two dozen women waited patiently in line. And for every customer to exit the store, the kindly guard allowed another shopper to enter.
No one was fearful of there being no good shoes left, of leaving the sale empty-handed. There is always something: a pointy-toed chocolate-brown flat with a side button, a strappy snakeskin sandal in an impossible shade of pink, a peau de soie evening shoe dotted with rhinestones. Not being able to find a pair of shoes that sparkle with magic? That's akin to saying that there is no magic left in the world.