Shoes, glorious shoes

Ellen Futterman, Editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but shoes are our soul (sole) mates. Long before Carrie Bradshaw made Manolo Blahnik a household name, women have been obsessed with shoes of all genus and species, from Mary Janes to Doc Martens to Jimmy Choos, from stilettos to sandals to sneakers. 

Think about it. As toddlers, we were regaled with the tale of “Cinderella” and the glass slipper. Oz’s Wicked Witch may have caused us nightmares, but Dorothy’s Ruby slippers inspired the sweetest of dreams. And those boots . . . we didn’t need Nancy Sinatra to tell us they were made for walking (as well as a few other things!).

I’m not clueing you into anything new here. Women and shoes go together like love and marriage, except that many of us have kept certain pairs longer than we’ve kept certain husbands.

Maybe it’s because shoes don’t make us to feel bad about our bodies. Our shoe size is pretty much established by the time we’re teenagers. Since the shoe (generally) fits, it doesn’t require as much energy, or emotional fortitude, as trying on a dress, or dare I say, swimsuit. Shoes also can be beautiful, and have the ability to transform our appearance like no other fashion accessory. Step into a pair of stylish heels and you’re Queen of the World. Slip into a pair of ballet flats and you’re Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face.”

But is there more to our obsession with shoes? 

That’s exactly the question first-time author and Vassar graduate Rachelle Bergstein, 31, asked herself when she set out to write, “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us” (Harper Collins, $24.99). She will be speaking about this, and other shoe-related social history, as part of the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival on Thursday, Nov. 8. Her presentation takes place at 6 p.m. at Neiman Marcus in Plaza Frontenac.

When Bergstein and I spoke last week, she said she didn’t want to write a “shoe encyclopedia” or another coffee table book about shoes. “You live in a moment when it’s assumed women are obsessed with shoes. How did that happen? There must be some historical and social context,” she said. “I really wanted to explore changing shoe styles and how they reflect women’s roles in the past 100 years.”

The result is a fascinating, though at times textbook account, of the history of shoes, which Bergstein asserts is intrinsic to the history of women. She skillfully traces the evolution and revolution of shoes and their impact on women – how they achieved “social currency” and have come to communicate “all these ideas about sexuality, social status and economic rank that have elevated them beyond another accessory.”

Bergstein explains that it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that shoemakers began to differentiate between the left and right foot. The advent of shoe factories at the start of the 20th century changed everything. You no longer needed to be rich to afford a second pair of shoes.

While suffragettes campaigned in sensible boots, provocative flappers favored shorter dresses, which helped spotlight their footwear. The popular 1920s comic strip Buster Brown gave us girlish Mary Janes while movie sirens of the ‘40s and ‘50s created an enduring fashion statement with their power pumps. Writes Bergstein: “The 1940s femme fatale was the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. The shoes, peeking out, were her freshly polished fangs.”

The book is celebrity heavy in its shoe-worthy references, with nods to Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, and of course, Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City” in a later chapter entitled “Shoes and the Single Girl.” Bergstein maintains that “in the ‘Sex and the City’ universe, Carrie’s Manolos bolster her self-esteem not just because they make her look taller, leaner  and more attractive but also because they’re evidence of her independence: She can use the money that she earns to treat herself.”

Bergstein doesn’t eschew men’s footwear; she points to John Travolta’s dancing Cuban heels in “Saturday Night Fever” as fanning the flames of disco and Studio 54 haute culture. “The film was a visual confection of Huckapoo shirts, skintight pastel polyester pants, flowing patterned dresses and platforms in gold, silver and bronze,” Bergstein notes. “With disco, the States founded a movement that it didn’t have to share with the UK: an American music trend so powerful that a fashion scene sprouted up around it.”

Bergstein admitted that while she, herself, is something of a shoe maven – she estimates her collection totals 75 pairs – the idea to write a book on the subject came about organically. In her job as an editorial consultant for a literary agency in New York, she attended a book party with her boss and her boss’s husband. He had just finished writing an 800-page tome about the sun and was told by his publisher he needed to cut it in half.

“I asked him how the revisions were going,” Bergstein recalled.

“He drolly rolled his eyes and said, ‘Terrible. Every time I cut 1,000 words I put 500 back in.’”

“I laughed and said, ‘Every time I throw a pair of shoes out, I buy two to replace them.’ And then he said, ‘You know, I don’t think anyone has ever done a good commodity history on shoes.’”

Bergstein spent the next four years researching and writing her book, mostly from her home in Brooklyn, though she did visit the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto to interview the director. When the female customs agent asked Bergstein why she had been in Canada, she explained to visit the shoe museum. The agent’s ears perked up. “There’s a shoe museum?” she asked.

From that moment on, the agent’s demeanor changed and a huge smile washed across her face.  She began asking Bergstein all sorts of questions, not related to her border crossing but rather about the book – its title, when it would be published and the like. “I giggled thinking once again,” Bergstein said, “how amazing it is that just the mention of shoes can form a bridge between two women, and even breach the most uncomfortable, impersonal circumstances.”

A day after our interview, I attended a media preview of the new designer shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue in Plaza Frontenac, which opened to the public last Friday. After a light lunch of curried chicken salad and iced shortbread cookies shaped like pumps, we were escorted to the opulent 10022-SHOE salon, where the look and décor are as artistic as the merchandise. It’s modeled after its Manhattan counterpart; at 3,500 square feet, double the size of the old shoe space, it’s big enough to have its own zip code.

Amid luxe couches and custom chandeliers are tiered tables displaying the likes of Jimmy Choo, Yves St. Laurent, Miu Miu, Fendi, Prada, Gucci, Stuart Weitzman, Tory Burch and Valentino, just to name drop a few. In the spirit of Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder who needed a shoe museum when I had this around the corner?