Sunday, March 21, 2010

Where Are the Shoes of Yesteryear*

Valerie says:

Where are the shoes of yesteryear*? (At least, where are mine and Jean's?)

I'm a practical person with a small closet, so most of the time I'm able to give my old shoes away. They've served me well, I've worn them to death (or in the rain or snow, which often amounts to the same thing), and I send them off with pomp and ceremony, like heroic dead Vikings sailing off to the next world in splendid ships.

But there are a small number that I just can't bear to part with. I know you know what I'm talking about. You may say to yourself 'after I have bunion surgery', or 'when my [grand]daughter is old enough', or perhaps 'when I find a really good shoe maker who can reproduce them in a triple E'. Maybe you think you'll sell them (only to the right person, of course). But whatever your rationalization (because that's what it is), you can't let go of this or that one the way you did all the others. These share closet space with the shoes you use, and the shoes you use resent these shoes with a sense of entitlement. They do nothing, take up valuable space, do not earn their keep and yet are doted on. If any shoes get polished, these are the ones. Not the workhorses and loyal servants you depend on so utterly, and yet take so thoroughly for granted. None of the six shoes I'm going to eulogize have been worn for the last four years, and some have been cossetted much longer than that.

Today Jean and I would like to present some of the shoes we coddle. We'll tell you why we can't wear them, and why we can't throw them away. No doubt you know this old tale, and the song and dance that go with it. Just for the record, the first three shoes are borrowed from Workman Publishing's 365 Days of Shoes Calendar, a beautifully edited parade of more than one hundred years of A list shoes. They're not, alas, from our closets.

[Faithful readers will recognize that we have touched on the loved-and-lost shoe issue before. For our previous comments on the great shoe conundrum, see Shoe Kaddish, dated September 1, 2009.]

This is one of the first pairs of shoes I ever bought. I got them in Siena, Italy when I was 20 and platform shoes were all the rage. These platforms are made of wood. European women who went through WWII couldn't wait to toss their wooden shoes. (Leather was rationed for soldiers, I think.) Those of us who never had to wear them, wanted to, of course. The labels fell out long ago, so I have no idea who made them. The first time I wore them, it must have taken me 10 minutes to walk down a single flight of stairs while I accustomed myself to the height and the loss of communication with the ground beneath me. I continue to love everything about them - the wooden soles, red leather, oxford hole punching, mary jane t strap. I'd wear them today if I could, but they're an 8.5, and I'm now a 9.5. I love thinking that they could be reproduced with a shock absorbent rubber bottom.

I am drawn to red shoes. The first pair I ever bought were red oxford Fred Braun flats, which I bought on West 8th Street with babysitting money when I was fifteen. I ruined them in the rain about three years later, and still carry a torch for them. I bought this pair at a second hand store in the early 90s, but they're from the 40s, labeled Shari Creation Hand Crafted. They have little marcasites inset into the leather. They're too narrow for my feet now (I have neuromas on both feet that need to stretch out), the toe box is too low, and I can't wear heels because they pressure the neuromas.

This is the most expensive shoe I ever bought, and I can't wear it anymore. The label says Creazioni Attica, made in Italy. I won't tell you what I paid for them, but I justified the expense because it's three toned blue suede, moving from dark to light between the toe and heel. I took a dozen photos, none of which do it justice. I've never seen anything like it before or since. (Later I bought its twin in an orange that faded to pale yellow.) At first they fit fine, then they fit fine with a pad at the toe, then they pinched my neuromas regardless of what I did. Just because a shoe is flat doesn't mean I can wear it. SIGH.

I got these wonderful orange suede Manolo Blahniks at the $1 flea market on West 26th Street in New York, which space has now been transformed into one of the hundreds of boxy luxury apartment buildings that everyone in the city had been desperately clamoring for. Aren't the wicked little tongues fabulous? They're wired, and somewhat flexible. But now they're too pointy for me, and the heels are too high. It's not a matter of mere discomfort to wear them, since what woman wouldn't suffer for her art? It's a matter of burning pain.

I was devastated when I could no longer wear these flat Charles Jourdan shoes, which I found at a thrift shop. They are SO Bauhaus, and so playful. Bauhaus extolled geometry, and showcased colors. You can see those principles applied here. The tongue of the shoe is rectangular; the heel is round. As with other shoes, the narrow sides and low toe box pinch my nerves, so I periodically look, but don't touch.

I thought I'd throw in a boot for good measure. With a blue Perry Ellis dirndl skirt I used to have (once a tad big on me; at last wearing more than a tad small), I felt marvelous wearing these Pollini Italian boots. They look as though they have a platform, but in fact the designer just added piping, both to disguise a seam and to add contrast and dimension. A wonderful touch. The bright checks remind me of medieval heraldic designs. These were also from a thrift shop. In the lining is the number 38.5. Now I don't feel comfortable in anything less than a size 40.

Jean says:
Because we spend a lot of time together at events such as openings and shows (art, crafts, antiques, vintage clothing and jewelry) which involve a fair amount of standing around, invariably the discussion turns to shoes and our aching feet, if not at the event, then on our way home. When Valerie first suggested this topic several months ago, I was thrilled and aghast. While I tend to hang onto things I love for much longer than necessary, being able to put my finger on a specific piece of clothing is challenging, to say the least. Saint Valerie continued to raise this topic periodically (the old bamboo under the fingernails approach, or as I like to think of it, the death by a thousand cuts!). [Valerie adds: It's true! Anyone would have thought I'd invited her out for a day of mammograms the way she reacted!]

So, after about the 90th not so subtle hint, I started to seriously hunt down some of my favorite shoes that I no longer wear, and, as luck would have it, recently excavated a box from 1982 that contained some '80s and some '70s goodies. From that treasure trove and the top of my closet, I chose a representative sample of shoes from each of four past decades - the '70s, '80s, '90s and '00s. I do hope you'll find this entertaining and will share your thoughts and photos of your favorite footwear you no longer wear. (Photographic credits: Vintage black and white Auntie Maud Frizon in previous paragraph from the 365 Days of Shoes Calendar; just above from Helene Verin's book, Beth Levine Shoes. We can't wear backless shoes anymore either.)

As a card-carrying hoarder of the first order, I can attest that the accumulated detritus of my life are not just "things". Rather, they are "memories". Take for example this black patent leather platform mary jane purchased in London in 1972. Even though only one of the deuce is known to survive, I somehow cannot part with it. Besides being an interesting objet, the shoe conjures up a whole trunkful of memories of my first trip to London in October 1972.

At that time, the British Invasion had long since taken over the US airwaves. London was "swinging," girls were "birds," Mary Quant was designing sky-high mini dresses, and Biba was my emporium of choice for clothes, accessories, and most of all makeup! The dollar was king and the exchange rate with the British pound was obscene. Clothing was incredibly cheap.

After I had checked out the King Tut exhibit at the British Museum and cruised the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museums, I headed straight to the Biba store on Kensington High Street, with its (to quote Wikipedia) "Art Nouveau decor and rock and roll decadence." I purchased these shoes, inexplicably called Mary Poppins. I loved them. They made me feel tall and willowy, like Jean Shrimpton, and mod, like Twiggy.

Even if I still had its mate, I could no longer wear them. High altitude gives me nosebleeds. However, I will continue to keep the solo shoe as a memento mori. Rather than haunt me, it cheers me.

These shoes have a history. In the early '80s, I had moved from Soho to the West Village to a loft in Chelsea. Nightlife was a regular Disco Inferno. My friends and I used to hit all the clubs. Although the Flamingo had closed by this time, The Ritz, Studio 54 and The Saint were the hot places to see and be seen. One evening, I wore these black suede lace-up high heels with a black leather bustier, a black midi-skirt, a black wool shawl (from Steve Soho) draped across my shoulders and big black sunglasses to Limelight, a club in a de-sanctified church on Sixth Avenue. My hair was cut short, dyed jet black and slicked back with product. As I descended the staircase to the dance floor, an extremely well-dressed gentleman approached me. Looking me up and down, he said "Oh, yes", handed me a black plastic card the size of a credit card with the Limelight name and logo on it and then said "This card will get you into this club for free. For life." I still have the card - and the shoes.

Into the '90s, I was still indulging my love of platforms. I think I purchased these shoes in 1994. This particular pair of black suede open-toed cork platforms are Alfies Original Souliers, from the recently closed Anbar Shoe Store on Reade Street in lower Manhattan (may it rest in peace). That store was the mecca for bargain-minded shoe-aholics. Everything was displayed by color, so all the red shoes were on one rack, the navy on another, etc. Brands ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, from designers like Walter Steiger, Robert Clergerie, Valentino, Versace and Armani to DKNY and Nine West -- all at deep discounts. Although it was hit-or-miss, if you timed it right, everything you liked came in your size.

I actually wore these shoes a lot, even to a "business casual" meeting in a Boston hotel that summer. By the 1990s, my wardrobe had already morphed to include lots of black, so they went with everything. They are in great condition nearly 16 years later, but these days, I think of them as "a sprain waiting to happen." So, they continue to roost in the rafters of my closet like great nesting birds.


I bought these black and cream platform slingbacks at the John Fluevog store on the corner of Prince and Mulberry Streets sometime just after the beginning of the new millenium. At the time, Akiro's Siren Hair Salon was on Mulberry Street, just north of Spring Street, so I passed the shoe store about once a month on my way home from my haircut. These shoes spoke to me, and luckily, they were on sale. I loved their retro look and their logo ("Don't give me no lip service"). Alas, now they make the balls of my feet scream no matter how many different types of gel or foam insoles I try. They are in such pristine condition, they do haunt me.

The store is still there. Valerie and I wandered by it today on our way to photograph the wonderful graffitti paintings on the walls of the now-closed Kitchen Club and Chibi Bar. (A moment of silence, please, for the passing of a fabulous restaurant and meeting place.)

Bottom Line
As I am writing this, I realize that, unlike Valerie's wide-ranging selections of footwear, the recurring theme in my selections is the platform. I would actually wear these fabulous blue platforms (courtesty of if it were physically possible. I attribute this obsession not only to the fact that I am 5'4" tall and love to appear taller, but also to my childhood. When I was really young and loved to play dress up, a neighbor who was all of about 4'8" tall gave my mother 3 or 4 pairs of her tiny platform slingbacks for me to play in. So, while others were imagining themselves as Cinderella, I must have been channeling my inner Gloria Swanson (whose own shoe size was about a 4 or 5). Mrs. Culbreath, if you're listening, I want you to know how much I loved your shoes. They were truly magic. Thank you!

Valerie says:
Recently I attended a lecture on Beth Levine, the first female shoe designer, given by Helene Verin, who has written a book on Ms. Levine and her numerous breakthroughs in the industry (see the earlier link). Verin says that Levine invented the stiletto heel, but she also designed the wonderfully inventive flat racing car shoe shown here. During the question and answer period after the lecture, I asked her why comfortable shoes for women of a certain age only seemed to come in the form of sneakers. Why couldn't someone at the very least make a sneaker body and then put black velvet on it, I asked. Ms. Verin summed it up succinctly by saying that all the current designers (with a few exceptions like Taryn Rose) are men. But, I persisted, with the Women of a Certain Age demographic possessing a large discretionary income, why wouldn't designers aim for that income? (After all, dentists make dentures, not just white veneers; Levi's makes 'relaxed fit' jeans, which is a discreet way of saying 'toneless muscle fit'. We are a niche market waiting to be exploited - I mean catered to - and there isn't any reason wonderful shoe styles can't be modified to suit our needs. Ms. Verin didn't seem to have an answer, which leaves me puzzled. What kind of capitalist society is this, anyway, where a perfectly good opportunity can go begging?

Jean and I have quite enjoyed looking at the current crop of very high heeled shoes. We know we can't wear them, but we appreciate well made shoes and creative designs, so we don't begrudge the designers or the wearers. Having said that, however, there really is a wearability factor in question in a number of the shoes out there. Case in point: These jeweled Armadillo shoes by the late, great Alexander McQueen resemble sculpture or exotic torture devices more than shoes for mortal women. They reportedly sport 12" heels. We've both seen our fair share of women who look quite out of their league when trying to negotiate streets with these very challenging structures on their feet. But in fact, how can any of us amateurs - mere retail buyers - be expected to walk the literal walk when even the masters - models who get paid to sashay down runways and who actually get coached in the sashaying arts - take spills in the four inch heels? Have a look at the video below, which depicts what one might call the Model Toddle. Doesn't this tell you that something's gotta give?



Let's go out with a bang. Another one we can't wear but gee, ain't it grand? (Ferragamo)

*With apologies to Francois Villon.


  1. I have those cream & black Fluevogs, & wear them every chance I get (because how often do you get to go to a cast party where nearly everyone is 20 years your junior & have all the women & some of the men drool over your shoes?). Actually, they are heading for worn-out. If you would like to sell yours on to a happy home, & they are a 7, I promise they will be honored. (Tell Valerie, who works with me, if you can bear to let them go.)

    Wish I had a photo of the Bennis/Edwards flats I found at a thrift shop for $5 -- only to find that they were unusually short & narrow. Finally I gave up & they went to the Salvos, but if only ...

  2. I worked in Fred Braun, West 8th Street, NY between 1968 and 1970. Also in the factory as receptionist same dates. Anyone out there?