Published: September 2006
Every Shoe Tells a Story
Baby booties to orthopedic sandals, we spend most of our waking lives in shoes, and from them we may learn something about our culture, our history, and ourselves.
By Cathy Newman
National Geographic Senior Writer

We wear our hearts on our soles. "Shoes are the best indicator of how people are feeling," says June Swann, a shoe historian based in Northampton, England. To hear Swann tell it, you can chart the rise and fall of prosperity from the elevation of a heel; hear the distant rumblings of war in the configuration of a toe; measure social change by the thickness of a sole.

Every shoe tells a story. Shoes speak of status, gender (usually), ethnicity, religion, profession, and politics (the Russian writer Maxim Gorky said a strong pair of boots "will be of greater service for the ultimate triumph of socialism than . . . black eyes"). Last, far from least, they can be drop-dead gorgeous.

High Heel

"It will never sell in London," Manolo Blahnik sighs, cradling the silk-and-fur mule. "You know. The British. Animal rights. No foxhunting. No shooting birds. It is crazy." He huffs. Looks hurt. "They won't buy this shoe, but—they'll eat rabbits and poor little animals like that." There is a giggle like the splash of water in a fountain.

Politically correct or not, there is an irresistible urge to pet this shoe; put it on a leash; take it to bed. It is a Manolo Blahnik high heel, and for more than 30 years, Blahnik has designed shoes that are the accessory to a fairy tale: Shoes made of rhinestones, feathers, sequins, buttons, bows, beads, grommets, rings, chains, ribbons, silk brocade, bits of coral, lace, fur (from farm-raised animals, he adds), alligator, ostrich—everything, perhaps, but woven unicorn forelock.

Blahnik is a rara avis himself—an exotic hummingbird. He speaks in exclamation points. He will not sit still. He jumps up from the chair in his office with walls of dove-wing gray on King's Road—a bird flushed from cover. He exclaims, enthuses—he is all flourishes, rococo gestures, exquisite manners; impossibly elegant, spotlessly groomed with silver hair combed straight back. There is the glen-plaid double-breasted suit, a purple-yellow-and-white knit tie, and—peeking out from the sleeve of a blue cotton shirt—a red crocodile band attached to a gold Swiss watch. The shoes are size 42 1⁄2 buckskin oxfords made for him at his factory in Milan. "I dress like a banker," he says when asked if the suit is custom-made. (It is.)

The story has been told before, "but"—he shrugs—"it is the only story I have." After studying art and literature in Geneva, Blahnik fell in with the fashion crowd in New York and met Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor of Vogue. Vreeland looked at his sketches. Do accessories—pretty little things, she said airily. And so he has. A "Manolo" is the Sex and the City shoe (in one episode Carrie realized she could have made a down payment on a New York apartment for what she spent on shoes), a generic term for a high heel, and the inspiration for Madonna's remark that his shoes are as good as sex, and "last longer."

Ladies, listen. When Manolo dies, there will be no more Manolos. There is no heir or protégé. No big luxury goods conglomerate like LVMH waiting in the wings. No. No. No. When Blahnik has gone to that great shoe box in the sky, Manolos are finished. Done. Not for Manolo Blahnik a label without the real person behind it. Not like Christian Dior (died in 1957), Coco Chanel (1971), or Roger Vivier (1998), labels that survive under the aegis of others. Consider Salvatore Ferragamo (died in 1960) whose dynasty rests in the hands of his children and grandchildren. Blahnik darts off to fetch a photograph of the Italian who immigrated to California in 1914 and became shoemaker to the stars. The photograph shows Ferragamo, his big, broad face and broader smile, surrounded by the lasts of the actresses—Greta Garbo, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren—for whom he made shoes. "Look at that face," he says. "He is a peasant! Brilliant. But a peasant!"

Ferragamo insisted style was not enough; shoes must be comfortable. And Blahnik? What about complaints that his shoes are torture? "I haven't heard that," he responds. "Women tell me they love my shoes. Some never take them off."

But isn't a shoe really a corset for the foot?

"Yes. But a corset you adore."

The mood shifts. Blahnik turns somber. The day before, an earthquake in Pakistan has killed 73,000, leaving uncounted injured, obliterating entire villages. The headlines weep tragedy. "I am embarrassed," he says. "People are dying and I do these frivolous things." The hand slaps his forehead as if in penance, then he opens a cupboard. There are six rows of shoes. They gleam like treasure. He lifts one out. "This one is inspired by Catherine the Great," he explains, placing the shoe on the table for contemplation. It is a glorious fantasy of silk brocade, velvet ribbons, chinchilla: lush, powerful, yet fragile.

Still, it is pointed out, it is only a shoe.

Blahnik nods. "Yes, only a shoe, but if I provide escape for the woman who wears it, if for only a few minutes, it brings a bit of happiness to someone, well, then, perhaps, it is something more than a shoe."

Sandal

Ease your hand gently along the insole of the sagebrush bark fiber sandal in the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, and you can feel the imprint of a big toe in what may be the world's oldest existing example of footwear. The sandal, found in Fort Rock Cave in central Oregon in 1938, may be 10,500 years old, and was worn by a native North American who lived in caves during the winter months and hunted in marshes in summer.

"These are the traces of human lives," says Tom Connolly, the museum's research director. "The worn heel pockets on the sandals; the charred pinpricks on the toe flaps allow you to put yourself at a fireside. There's the sense you get from an assemblage of sandals here, those big and worn, small and child-size, those caked in mud, that allows you to see them as products of real human families: mom, kids, dad, grandparents."

Though humans may have wrapped their feet in skins earlier, Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, says sturdy shoes originated between 40,000 and 26,000 years ago. Trinkaus studied the foot bones of Neandertals living 100,000 to 40,000 years ago, compared them with the more delicate foot bones of our ancestors living 26,000 years ago, and concludes that shoe wearers developed weaker toes because of the reduced stress and increased support footwear allows. From there, shoes evolved like stone tools and art, with other advances in human culture.

Jenna Tedrick Kuttruff, a textile expert at Louisiana State University, points out that of the group of fiber sandals (some as old as 8,000 years) found in a Missouri cave she has examined, no two are alike. "The wearers of these shoes lived a subsistence existence," she says. "They didn't need to make each pair different. But it's human nature to make things visually appealing, to make one pair a little more complex than others to set it apart from someone else's." The desire to wear something different, distinctive, and decorative—that is to say, the instinct for fashion—has been around for a very long time.

Lace-up Boots

How is an in-your-face black leather thigh-high lace-up boot with a four-inch spike heel like a man's black calf lace-up oxford? They are both made on a last, the wood or plastic foot-shaped form that leather is stretched over and shaped to make a shoe. "You cut a pattern; you give it shape; you put on a sole," says Natacha Marro, a maker of custom fetish boots in London. "Really, they are both the same."

Marro learned shoemaking in London and started designing boots for films like Star Wars and pop stars like Christina Aguilera. Now she sells through the House of Harlot in North London, where an accessory is defined as a leather wristband with steel spikes.

This particular morning, Marro is wearing robin's-egg-blue Mary Jane wedges with a split toe that looks like nothing so much as a pig's trotter. "It's animalistic," she says. "I like animalistic."

Shoes are theater. "Shoes turn you into someone else. You can't be a dominatrix in a sneaker. If you are in a high heel, you are in pain, and you are going to make someone pay for it." Then there is the drag queen who puts on a high platform heel, and he becomes she. "You know women who will kill for the right shoe? There are men, too! You put on heels, and suddenly you are six inches [15 centimeters] higher," she says. "Who doesn't want to be six inches taller? Even men—more men than you can imagine—want to. It's a play. It's a power thing. You can dress as a sailor, a Victorian, a Renaissance princess. When I go to carnival in Venice, I put on my brocade high heels, and I am in the 17th century."

And the epitome of a sexy shoe is?

"You can't go wrong with a nice fitted black leather boot with a four-inch heel."

Or, maybe you can.

Space Boots

At $30,000 a pair, moon boots make Manolos seem like cheap skates. Manolos wouldn't hack it in space. Moon walking demands the highest of high-tech shoes—like those designed by Dave Graziosi's team at ILC Dover, a manufacturer of space suits for NASA in Frederica, Delaware.

"We're planning for the moon and beyond," says Graziosi, an aerospace engineer. "Next stop: Mars." The latest in space footwear, the M2 Trekker, is constructed in three parts—an inner pressure bladder, a middle structural layer, and a protective cover.

The shoe will need to tolerate temperatures from minus 350˚F (minus 212˚C) to plus 350˚F (177˚C), resist micrometeoroids (at 45,000 miles an hour [72,000 kilometers an hour], even dust is destructive), hold up on the rocky surface of the moon, yet comfortably allow the wearer to hike back should the lunar rover conk out miles away from the landing module. The boot is slimmer and lighter than the last generation shoe worn by Apollo astronauts.

To be precise, the first man on the moon is myth—it was the first shoe on the moon. Those shoes—Neil Armstrong's boots (size 9 1⁄2 medium)—are still on the moon, along with nine other pairs of boots worn during the Apollo missions. When the Apollo astronauts collected moon rocks, they had to jettison their boots to compensate for the additional weight they brought back. Three decades on the moon have taken a toll. The metal buckles and snaps on the boots would be fine. No oxygen on the moon, so no oxidation and rust. But the silicone soles and synthetic fabrics have probably off-gassed and degraded. Should anyone try to retrieve them, there's a good chance the shoes would turn to powder if touched.

Platform Shoe

Gillion Carrara, a professor in the fashion department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is demonstrating the anatomical effect of the high heel. "Look what happens when I put on a high heel," she says, pulling on a Vivienne Westwood shoe. Westwood, the British designer responsible for the punk look, is famous for having brought supermodel Naomi Campbell to her knees when she sent Campbell down the runway in a pair of platform shoes so high that the supermodel stumbled and fell.

Carrara places the shoe on the floor, steps in and up. "The breasts go out; the derriere juts back; the leg elongates," she says, as her anatomy puts her words into action. "Men find that very attractive."

"The foot is an erotic organ and the shoe is its sexual covering," wrote William A. Rossi, a podiatrist, in The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe. "The shoe is the erotic foot's pimp and procurer."

Surely, it's all those digits. Toe cleavage. Heaving arches.

"Wrong," counters Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. "The shoe isn't the pimp for the foot. It's the other way around. The foot is the pimp for the shoe. It's the shoe that is the erotic object." Cinderella's glass slipper, not her foot, ignited the Prince's ardor.

Feminist alert! The theme of helplessness runs rampant in the history of shoes—from Chinese foot-binding to the 21st-century stiletto. "I like high heels," British photographer David Bailey reportedly said. "It means girls can't run away from me."

The needle-sharp heel called the stiletto, from the Italian word for "dagger," appeared in the postwar years of the early 1950s. After the war and years of Rosie the Riveter masculine dress, fashion turned feminine; the focus turned to babymaking. Technology contributed a steel core allowing for a thin heel that lifted the shoe up like a skyscraper (previous heels, made of wood, could break). Voilà! The beautiful, dangerous stiletto stepped out.

In truth, we've been standing tall in shoes for centuries. Greek actors put on elevated platforms to raise them above mere mortal status. In 1595, Queen Elizabeth I authorized payment to her shoemaker for a "pair of Spanish leather shoes with high heels and arches." In 15th- and 16th-century Spain and Italy, women wore exquisitely decorated shoes known as chopines, which could stand four inches (ten centimeters) or more off the ground. (An example in Venice's Correr Museum is nearly 20 inches [50 centimeters] high.)

Beautiful? Yes.

Practical? Hardly.

To make the journey from point A to point B, the Venetian lady in chopines often had to be supported by servants. Each step hovered on the edge of disaster.

In one sense, chopines and high heels represent the grand folly of shoe evolution. "It's as if you invented a practical item—say, toilet paper—then embedded it with bits of glass just to make it beautiful," says one curator.

Or, as June Swann, the shoe historian, says, "It's like the circus. You can learn to walk on anything if you put your mind to it."

Man's Shoe

At first sight, the 17th-century leather shoe slashed into strips sent a chill through June Swann, then Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection at the Northampton Museum in England. The shoe, found in the eaves of an old farmhouse, was deliberately sliced into ribbons and hidden, but Swann doesn't know why. "I do know it would take a carving knife to cut leather that thick and tough," she says. "Someone worked hard to do that."

Swann, 76 years old, face framed by a triangular wedge of white hair, walks around in size six Ecco sandals, and always carries a plastic bag with her shoe-inspecting tools—tape measure, flashlight, and magnifying glass. She is tart, opinionated ("Athletic shoes show how tolerant of ugliness we've become"), rigorous about scholarship, relentlessly intolerant of those who are not ("Her book is full of errors," she says of a colleague. "On page seven it says—oh never mind—it's rubbish!"). Museums around the world hire her to identify shoes in their collections, and Queen Elizabeth awarded her an MBE in 1976 for her work at the Northampton Museum. Swann doesn't just read books for plot. She reads them for shoes. Madame Bovary's lover gave her a pair of pink satin shoes trimmed in swan down. Jonathan Swift mentioned wood-soled shoes in Gulliver's Travels. Recently, she saw a film version of Pride and Prejudice and noted with disapproval an Edwardian boot peeking out from an early 19th-century gown.

Manolo Blahnik doesn't interest her. He's "a decorator." The subject of concealed shoes does, and has been a passion of hers since 1958, when someone brought her a pair of 1840s children's ankle boots that had been found in a thatched roof.

"I worried about that pair of boots for a long time," she recalls. "What parent would let a child play on a thatched roof? Why would they allow a good pair of shoes to be left behind?" When a colleague mentioned someone had brought him old shoes found beneath floorboards, the light clicked. Swann realized the shoes found in a thatched roof were put there intentionally. Since then, some 1,700 concealed shoes have been found—not just in Britain, but in Germany, Australia, Canada, the United States—and recorded in a registry started by Swann.

"Concealing shoes is tied up with superstition," she says, "but I still don't have the answers." She hasn't found any written explanations of the practice. No evidence, so no conclusions. As for the slashed leather shoe, it feels malevolent, provokes interesting scenarios (an unhappy wife? a disgruntled servant?), but remains a mystery.

Perhaps, suggests June Swann, the secret must remain one. Kept secrets have power. Revealed secrets have none.

Baby's Shoes

The shoes of the dead have a life all their own. When Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, first examined the brown leather 16th-century baby's shoe from the Netherlands, she had a revelation. "It was my epiphany shoe," she says. "I understood that I would never escape the wearer." Meaning she understood that the shoe was more than an object. A shoe—like a hat, or, to lesser extent, a glove—keeps the shape of and can conjure the person who owned it in a way that few possessions can. "When I held this baby's shoe, I thought to myself, Who was the kid who owned this? I realized it was something I would buy my daughter today."

Child's Shoes

Among other shoes in the collections of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto are a pair of bronzed child's shoes, and when asked why they were there (kitsch in a museum?), Elizabeth Semmelhack, museum curator, hesitates, puzzled herself. "Let's look," she says, lifting the identifying tag. She pales. "I see now," she says and gently replaces them on the shelf. "They are the shoes of a child who perished in Auschwitz."

Bespoke Man's Lace-up

It is said that the men who belong to Olga Berluti's Swann Club polish their shoes with Venetian linen dipped in Dom Pérignon and expose them to the light of the full moon, but that is false. It is the quarter moon that is important, Berluti explains: "The moon gives transparency to leather. The sun burns; the moon burnishes."

More about the Swann Club (named for the protagonist of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past) later. For now, know that Olga Berluti is the creative director of, and designs handmade, exorbitantly expensive men's shoes for, the company that bears her family name.

Olga Berluti loves men's feet—a passion, not a fetish, she says. The passion began with her convent schooling in Italy. A long corridor led to the chapel and a 14th-century statue of Christ. "I would approach the altar," she remembers. "The nailed feet of Christ were exactly on the same level as my eyes. I stared and stared. I said to myself: When I am older, I will remove the nails. I will relieve the suffering of men's feet."

Berluti, small and slight with short black hair and eyes so dark they seem to be all pupil, does not seem tethered to the ground. She lives simply, does not eat meat and does not wear leather ("My life is flesh and blood already"). She wears only natural fibers—always white. On her feet: white cotton sneakers in summer, white wool shoes in winter. She is an ascetic in a universe of extravagance. "I sublimate myself. I suffer. I have spent my life at men's feet," says Olga, Our Lady of Shoes.

She speaks in Celtic rune and Delphic pronouncement. "Man is a vagabond deluxe. We are moving through to the perfection of gesture," she says. So what if the utterances make little sense. We are talking mystique and shoes with the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio. We are talking shoes with the sleek, menacing profile of a mako shark, shoes decorated with piercings, tattoos, sometimes scars. They are shoes, she says, for the hidden warrior inside every man. Shoes, also, for the man with four to twelve thousand dollars to spend on a made-to-order dream.

Her atelier, in an 18th-century building in Paris's Marais, is a stage set. A shoemaker's bench with rows of apothecary bottles sits in the corner. Do the bottles contain essence of sorrow? Tincture of pain? No, merely fragrant oils and dyes. The lasts—she calls them ex-votos—of Berluti's famous clientele rest on low tables. There are lasts that belonged to Pablo Picasso ("We made his sandals"); Jean Cocteau ("He liked to wear shoes without socks"); Andy Warhol ("He asked for his right loafer to be patched—and be very visible").

Once a year Olga Berluti invites clients to the Swann Club soiree, a black-tie affair, with champagne, not just to drink, but to clean shoes. "The alcohol makes them shine, but it must be chilled; it must be a very dry, a grand champagne."

In Olga Berluti's world, the relationship between man and shoe is complex. "Shoes adopt and tame you, and you adopt and tame them, like domesticating a wild animal," she says. "You buy a pair of shoes you adore, but they are too edgy, too avant-garde. Perhaps your wife made you buy them. You put them away, and little by little this style, this color you're not used to seeps in. You buy a jacket that goes with them, or a different color shirt. One day, you realize you have become the man your wife envisioned. The shoes revealed something new, something unexpected in you."

But is not to take off one's shoes to reveal something not so lovely, something, in fact, rather ugly—that is to say, one's feet? The writer offers her own as an example.

Olga Berluti does not flinch. She reaches to cradle the feet. "No, no," she says passionately. "There are no ugly feet. Feet are spiritual. They enable man to stand up. They free his hands. Now, he can look at the stars."

Moccasin

"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.