Whenever I pass by a shoe store, a flurry of pleasant emotions never fails to overwhelm me as I give the array of shoes a sweeping glance. Yes, you guessed it right – shoes are my weakness, even at my age. According to Helen Berkun, a fashion photographer and shoe collector, “Shoes are the one accessory women can never have enough of.” I absolutely agree, as do most of the women I know.
But despite my soft spot for shoes, getting a new pair is not something that I rush headlong into and then regret later (although it has happened a few times). The choosing, the fitting, the buying, the unboxing and, finally, the wearing – each is an important link in the chain of a process that I take seriously and cautiously, because I believe that shoes speak louder than words. I know a lot of people who make “shoe contact” before “eye contact” when meeting others for the first time. As Forrest Gump said, “There’s an awful lot you can tell about a person by their shoes.”
If I were rich, I’d buy new shoes everyday because new shoes fascinate me no end. They always exude a fresh, comforting smell that relaxes my senses regardless of the material they’re made of. Like a freshly minted coin or a newly made piece of glazed pottery, they have nary a flaw, no nick or scratch, smudge or stain, no tell-tale marks of the ravages of time and long distances. I feel confident when I am wearing new shoes because I don’t have to conceal a run-down heel, a scruffy toe, or a misshapen vamp, and they’re for all the world to see in every which way.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when my fondness for shoes began. When I was a little girl, I took it as a matter of course that I only had one pair of formal shoes at a time and that I could have a new pair only when I outgrew the old one. It was my parents, my mother particularly, who decided on the style and color of my shoes, and they got me mostly black Mary Jane shoes because black went with any color dress. In those days, children usually wore Mary Janes because being closed, low-cut shoes with rounded toes, low heels and thin soles, they were snug and comfy. And since they had one or more straps across the instep that were fastened with a buckle or button, they were highly unlikely to slip off the feet of even the most active child. Thus, I got stuck with Mary Janes until I was old enough to wear shoes without straps.
Perhaps my penchant for shoes started when I was a pre-teen and I needed a pair of white shoes for a special event in school. My mother took me out shopping and, for the first time, let me choose the style I liked. After a long and thorough search, I finally settled on what I thought was the most beautiful pair of white shoes I ever saw. It had a lightly embossed crosshatch pattern like linen stationery, cut-out sides with daintily braided borders, and most of all, half-inch heels, which made me feel all grown-up and ladylike because I did not have to wear bobby socks with them. I wore those shoes to church and dress-up occasions until they became shabby and discolored.
In high school, I basically had only two pairs of shoes (not counting the rubber shoes I used for physical education classes) – one for school wear and the other for church and formal events. School shoes were mostly dull and boring because they were pretty much the same style, so I did not give them the same serious attention that I did in choosing my dress shoes. Back in the ’60s when Op Art was the vogue, I had a pair of modish sling backs in black and white geometric patterns with low Cuban heels. I wore them on our school’s Cadena de Amor ceremony, during which the seniors turned over to us juniors, who were dressed in pink, a long garland of the cadena de amor vine to symbolize the passing of responsibilities. On my high school graduation the following year, I wore brand-new medium-heeled beige pumps with my white academic gown, which for me was the closest thing to wearing high heels.
When I was in college, I had more leeway in getting the shoes I liked because I studied in the city, where big shoe stores sold a wide array of ladies shoes in various shapes and sizes. But because I was the proverbial starving student who depended on my parents for pocket money, I had to go by their rules and got to buy a new pair only at the start of each school year. Nevertheless, there were a few times when I managed to sidestep this unwritten parental edict in exchange for good grades. The shoes I bought were inexpensive but tasteful, and since I used them with utmost care, I somehow managed to accumulate an assortment over time, which gave me a feeling of (false) abundance.
Over the years I witnessed shoe trends come, go, and come again, their revival marked by clever changes in clips and ornaments, colors, material, and heel and toe shapes, but looking basically the same as their predecessors. I had become a certified shoe lover, but certainly not a blind one, so I did not let the craze of the moment define me. I chose my shoes sensibly, making sure the style was appropriate for my age, personality, occupation (I was a teacher) and, of course, my budget.
When platform shoes became the fad in the ’70s, I acquired several pairs, but I eschewed the ones that had outrageously thick soles and chunky heels because I knew I’d look ridiculous in them. In the ’80s I fell head-over-heels (no pun intended) in love with stilettos, which made a re-appearance from the years before. With the ‘90s and 2000s came revivals of the platform soles of the ’70s, along with platform-style Mary Janes, platform flip-flops, and wooden platform sandals, which I did not really fancy even if they added inches to the wearer’s height.
But my great favorites at the time were sling backs and pumps of various styles – black pumps, Mary Jane pumps, t-strap pumps, peep-toe pumps – which I liked to wear to work and special events. In later years, I owned a pair or two of metallic shoes and strappy sandals for formal occasions, and a good number of wedges. Some of my shoes were gifts, but most of them were bought with hard-earned money. Then as now, I never invested in expensive shoes, and whatever pricey-looking ones I had in the past I got from sales and bargains.
By the way, in case you are wondering, I did not own a single pair of sneakers, flat shoes, or flat sandals back then, except for rubber flip-flops and thongs, which I used only for casual or informal events, and bedroom slippers for indoor wear. Flat footwear, no matter how au courant, embellished or bejewelled, did not appeal to me at all. They made me feel underdressed and dowdy and, believe it or not, ill at ease. When I walked in them, I had the sensation of floating and losing my footing. Even when I was heavily pregnant with my babies, I refused to wear flats, to my mother’s consternation, and so to placate her I wore shoes with one-inch heels, the flattest I was willing to go.
So in the perennial debate between the “comfort of flats” versus the “confidence of heels,” I naturally sided with the latter. There was no question about it – I was an avid high-heel wearer. Maybe my fascination for high heels began in my childhood when I took a fancy to a pair of red stilettos my mother owned, and I would walk clumsily and noisily around the house in them, which were twice the size of my cute little feet. As a full-grown adult standing at five-feet nothing (blame it on my genes), I’ve worn all sorts of high heels since college to boost my height by an inch or so. But being deficient in height was not the only reason why I loved clicking along in high heels, despite the risks of bunions, pain, and injuries. It was the feminine grace and confidence that I felt and exuded while wearing them. Panna Munyal, Assistant Luxury Editor, says it all for me in one sentence: “I love the way my walk changes, the way my hips swing, my shoulders roll back, and my posture straightens.”
I must admit that it was not always a love affair between my high heels and me. There were times when I shuffled and hobbled about in them unattractively because of the pain they caused. Before pedicabs (three-wheeled, pedal-operated public conveyances) came to my hometown, people went from one place to another on foot (myself included), or on a motorcycle or bicycle if they owned one (I didn’t). Every Sunday, I would walk (in 3-inch stiletto heels) the whole distance from my house to the church, which was many blocks away, on dusty and unpaved streets, and when church was over, walk back to the house (in the same 3-inch stiletto heels). Then there were the formal parades around the town that teachers like me were obliged to join every year – the town fiesta parades and the school parades that marked historical milestones. To look my best in those events, which people lined up in the streets to watch, I had to be in high heels! In the classroom, I preferred to stand rather than sit for the entire time it took to deliver a lesson or give a lecture, to enable my students to see me better and to hold their attention. Every time I proctored a test, I would go around the classroom and make myself omnipresent with the tick-tack and click-clack of my high heels to deter the students from cheating. At the end of the day my feet would kill me, but being young and idealistic, I dismissed those discomforts as part and parcel of a fashion choice that was no one else’s business but mine.
Now that I am in my ’60s, the sands have shifted. I still love shoes with a passion, but my preferences have changed quite dramatically. Maybe it’s part of the wisdom that comes with aging and the realization that they’re actually safer, more sensible, and more comfortable, or maybe because they’re the “in” thing nowadays, that I now find myself favoring flats over heels. From what was an unimaginable prospect in the past, my modest shoe collection now includes a few pairs of sneakers that I use for my keeping-fit walks, and ballet flats, flat sandals, and loafers for practically everything else!
I still wear heels, though not as much as before. When I retired and relocated, I gave away most of my high heels but kept a few pairs that I was not ready to part with just yet – black wedge pumps, D’Orsay pumps, ankle-strap sandals, a pair of nude sling back wedges with metal-encrusted heels, white espadrilles, black peep-toe pumps, and the stilettos with black-and-white patterns and pointed toes that used to be my favorite. Sometimes I put them on and sashay before the mirror like a flippant young woman, but the truth is I don’t really need them any more than I need my old bell bottoms and mini skirts. I know that it won’t be long before I will have to let go and release my attachment to these relics from my past. Then maybe I will acquire a new pair or two to remind myself that I am living in the here and now, where life is happening, and not in the illusions of days long gone, which are over and will never return.
“To change skins, evolve into new cycles, I feel one should not continue to live with the same objects. They reflect one’s mind and the psyche of yesterday. I throw away what has no dynamic, living use.”
Thank you, Anais Nin, for these wise words.