Wigan, May, 2021
I was wandering around the town centre when the pavement suddenly seemed much harder, which wasn’t surprising, because my right shoe had collapsed, only the inner sole holding it together – and the left one wouldn’t last long.
They were a very old, much-mended pair of wedges, kept because so comfortable. I managed to keep what remained of them on my feet till I got to the Grand Arcade, a huge mall where most of the shops had shut down, but one still open was dear old Clarks, so I rushed in….’I need some new shoes, I mean, I really need….’
The assistant looked alarmed – a wild-eyed woman careering into the shop – till she saw the state of my shoes and called the manager out of the stockroom to take a look. I was the perfect customer, the one who couldn’t walk away without buying something, so she soon found me lots of styles to try on till, way past closing time, I finally settled on a pale pink pair of ballet flats with square toes. The shoe-wrecks were dumped in a bin and I danced my way back to the hotel.
It was the only time I’d ever had to buy shoes on the hoof, as it were, the wedges the only ones to actually die on my feet, but they weren’t the first pair of mine to fall apart. Souvenirs from 1970s Amsterdam, clogs with a tapestry vamp and cork sole, forgotten at the back of a cupboard in London, disintegrated into holey heaps of dust…the prime suspect a mouse, who probably thought the cork was a kind of cheese…
The souvenirs from Wigan joined 73 other couples populating the current wardrobe, including boots and slippers. Quite a modest collection; Imelda Marcos had around 3,000 pairs, amassed when the people of the Phillipines were desperately poor, though she protested it was more like a 1,000… When in 1986 she and her brutal dictator of a husband fled their palace, the shoes were abandoned. A perversion of a fairytale.
More than 20 billions of pairs of shoes are made every year across the world, most fated to be thrown away to degrade unseen in landfill. Others outlive their owners for centuries and take their final steps into a museum…
Northampton, England, 1996
A museum in the country’s capital of footwear. In those less interactive days, the items were displayed in a glass cabinet and spoke for themselves. Like two of the smallest, one a pale blue baby shoe with a pathetic bar across the front with a matching button, salvaged from and 18th century shipwreck. The other was an exquisite silken affair from China, embroidered with birds, less than 4 inches in length. The lotus shoe, crafted for a broken foot, when the crippling practice of foot-binding was thought to enhance a girls’s marriage prospects and made sure she couldn’t walk far…
The shoe – a thing of beauty, vehicle of movement, symbol of oppression and power. The everyday article with multiple personalities, some at war with each other. When the poor or enslaved went barefoot, the shoe was a sign of status in itself – and the heel made the status literal, adding height and authority to the wearer. The vertically challenged Louis XIV was famously painted in his favourite red heels, displaying a shapely royal calf. The shoes – and towering wigs – made sure no one at the court was taller than the king.
The heel has a long history, evolving from the chopine or patten, the overshoe worn to protect fine footwear and clothing from the mud and filth of Europe’s streets, but hard to catch a carriage in… The stilted style that survives in today’s wedge or platform sole.
My own favourite heels are the low to middling sort or waisted in the Louis style, out of fashion at the moment, but sure to make a comeback soon; there are no very high heels in my collection, however leg-lengthening they are, because of their inherent instability. You can’t walk fast or escape in them and falling over, of course, is an inelegant hazard of later life… So, no stilettos or killer heels. Old age is lethal enough.
Shoes, like their wearers, have a reputation. I had a flatmate once, who worked in the civil service and paid her rent on time but had, I suspected, a secret life conducted at another address. Because her favourite shoes had a bit of the corset and bondage about them: sky-high, spiky heels with a lot of straps and buckles around the calf – the kind of constriction that promises release…
There’s nothing kinky or rubbery in my closet and my life-style isn’t rural enough for wellies, though I do have some trainers in there somewhere and a new pair of plimsolls with zips and laces the flatmate might have liked, in a silvery shade – because in the modern world of shoes, comfort can come with a touch of glamour or romance. Which matters, because no entirely sensible shoe ever made a poor girl royal or rich – and no other item of clothing comes with quite the same promise of adventure or power to transform the day. Making finding the right pair, like a partner, an affair of the heart…
There’s only one style of shoe that satisfies the exhibitionist streak that even – especially -the quietest person possesses, that reveals one of the few body parts that ages well and doesn’t get fat: the ankle and foot. That ticks all the shoe boxes: the open-sided retro peep-toe sandal, the ’40s favourite. Perfect for the lightly flirty foot.
The sandal, one of the most basic forms of footwear, has come a long way too. My first husband had a pair of ‘missionary’ sandals popular in the 1960s and 70s, but didn’t commit the style crime of wearing them with socks. My 1990s Scholls had an unyielding wooden sole, but I wore them a lot, till the woman in the flat below complained about the racket they made on her ceiling. Flip-flops were a cheap and cheerful alternative, but made an awful slapping sound on the floor, so not for the shoe snob, though I later found out that an ancient version was worn by pharoahs who wouldn’t have been seen dead in anything like a croc… And I do have a modern relative of the style, with a suede studded thong: the Fit-flop – the super-sandal which arrived in 2010, said to tone the muscles of the leg….
The world’s oldest shoe is a bag-like covering made of leather, worn 5,000 years ago, stuffed with grass to keep its shape, found in a cave in Armenia. Such discoveries return us to what a shoe is actually for – to protect the foot against the weather, icy, scorching or rough terrain. It’s this direct connection with the ground that informs our own relationship with what lies beneath our feet.
The shifting article of style – fashion’s fancy – may also make the difference between life and death. In a death or labour camp, the possession of a pair of shoes, provided they fitted well enough, could decide a prisoner’s chances of survival. The naked foot, or one barely wrapped in rags, standing for hours at a roll-call or tramping through the snow, was fatally exposed. The shoe mountain of Auschwitz reminds us that the item itself is testament to an immeasurable crime – while elsewhere, not in real but in imagined form, the shoe pays respect to it.
Budapest, September, 2009
The ship, our floating hotel, was moored near the Chain Bridge, but wouldn’t set sail for a few hours, so there was time for a stroll along the promenade. The early evening sun was soft and I was happy – my first river cruise in loving and witty company with umpteen opportunities to dress up – and knew nothing about the memorial we were about to encounter. The Shoes on the Danube Bank.
60 pairs, each with their own character – a scuffed heel here, a loose lace there – cast in iron, a bit rusted in places, set into concrete. A creative and therefore profoundly human recognition of what happened in that place in the winter of 1944-1945, when Jews were shot into the icy water, turning the river red, the current carrying them away. The shoes they left behind were items of real value, probably traded or sold on the black market. It’s such an ordinary thing to do, to put on a pair of shoes then take them off again, until one day it isn’t…. The walk back to the waiting ship was a slow one.
Things you can see, hold and wear bring the really big abstractions like time and the nature of evil within reach. Such familiar, everyday objects in an unexpected setting – sculptures scattered on a bank, displayed in a museum or just lost on a beach or left on a wall somewhere invite you to look at them more closely and know them in a different way. Displacement does that, can leave a deep imprint…
When a friend recently asked me to take off my shoes, not for murderous or religious reasons, but to protect her new carpet, I was instantly back in Budapest. Then a moment later, back in the Midlands, I said something polite about the carpet, a rather dreary shade of beige. The shoes left in the hall were the pink ones bought in Wigan, which have a faint touch of fantasy about them – pale cousins, countless times removed, of Dorothy’s ruby red, sequinned slippers in The Wizard of Oz. Next to them, a pair of traditional court shoes in black and slung in a corner, some teenage trainers, less than fragrant…. Self-portraits, in their own way.
It’s a long, well-trodden trail from pharaonic sandals to boots on the moon or vegan brogues made of bamboo or the recycled tyres of a car – a wonderfully diverse procession, two by two – because shoes, of course, are designed to work in tandem, to stride out together into the world, to skip down the road, march in step or trudge along a bitter path or just potter about the house.
But there’s something about the shoe on its own, even an empty one on a shelf in a shop, waiting to be an adoptive part of someone’s story. Or the others left or lost along the way, like the foot covering found in the cave.
When the everyday earthly object, independent of the human experience for which it was made, breaks new ground…. Damaged but whole. One of a pair, but complete in itself.