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Moccasin Sioux, beaded sole, 1880 to 1900
Photograph by Mitchell Feinberg
By Cathy Newman
"Shoes proclaim what it is you don't have to do," Elizabeth Semmelhack says. "That's why Manolo Blahniks are called limousine shoes." Next, Semmelhack shows off a pair of 19th-century Sioux moccasins. Exquisite beadwork covers the soles. The limousine principle applies here, too, except that the wealth proclaimed was horse wealth. The beaded soles telegraphed a Sioux variation on a theme of upmanship: I don't have to walk. I can ride. Furthermore, you who aren't on a horse can see from the soles of my moccasins just how well off I am.
Fast-forward to Diana Vreeland, the Vogue editor, who kept the soles of her shoes polished to a perfect sheen, the implication being that her shoes were not for anything as pedestrian as walking. It was fashionspeak for I don't have to pound the pavement. Driver, come here.
In an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Nancy Knox opens her closet to reveal boxes and boxes of shoes by Jimmy Choo, Patrick Cox, Christian Louboutin, Gucci, JP Tod's, Manolo Blahnik, Philippe Model, Issey Miyake, Maud Frizon, but the crème de la crème, the ne plus ultra ultra of her collection is a pair of Roger Vivier heels bought 20 years ago on Madison Avenue. They are crimson suede with brass comma-shaped heels that rat-a-tat-tat like the report of a firing squad as she crosses the parquet floor of her apartment. "Devil shoes" she calls them, and you can imagine the dark, leering glances of men and a whiff of brimstone.
What is it about shoes? She reaches for an answer. "Make you feel good? Better than sex?"
The question persists. Joan Rivers aside ("Does fashion matter? Always—though not quite as much after death," she said), fashion is frivolous.
Yet, it is not. "Should we be silent and not speak, our raiment . . . would [betray] what life we have led," Shakespeare wrote. And so it is with shoes.
Joanne Heaney, thirtysomething winner of a shoe-aholic contest run by a Canadian chain of shoe stores, lives in Toronto and carries photographs of her favorite shoes in her wallet. "I have about 200 pairs," she says. "My fancy shoes are in my closet. Summer shoes are in another room. Winter shoes are in the basement.
"Why shoes? They fit if you gain or lose weight. They make me feel pretty. They make me feel sexy. They're a great antidepressant. I don't have a pet or a boyfriend. I have my shoes."
Shoes are armor—protecting us from the flinty surface of the moon, the searing sand of desert, the urban grime of city asphalt. Shoes also reveal our vulnerability—not just the weakness of vanity, but the easily wounded nature of our souls.