On a steep and twisted cobbled street in Provence, I recently saw a beautiful young woman with a heavy baby in her arms. She was wearing a flattering skintight jumpsuit, swinging her long hair, and easily hefting her precious burden, and she sauntered with total feminine assurance along that stony, hilly little street in a pair of platform-soled sandals with skyscraper-high heels.
She was a breathtaking spectacle, a Madonna of the Foolish Shoes. But it’s also true that had she been wearing, in the name of Good Sense, elaborate running shoes–with their ridiculous thickness and multiform brightness–they would have struck the eye as equally attractive and equally absurd.
It seems that feet are getting bigger all the time–shod feet, that is. While upper proportions have shifted uneasily from big shoulders and wayward hair to neater hair and narrower shoulders, there has been a steady trend down below toward gigantic shoes for both sexes and all ages–multicolored and padded feet, creatively laced-up, zipped-up, and raised-up feet. The fashion press has called this part of a ‘70s Revival, and those who remember that decade may recall the platform footgear then current. Back then, they suggested a ‘40s Revival, but this time something else is going on.
More than one thing, perhaps. Shoe fetishism is certainly nothing new, though for women it has been mostly a 20th-century passion. Like so much else, sexy shoes used to be a male privilege, from the aristocratic pointed poulaines of the 15th century that stretched out as far as 30 inches to the huge cavalier boots of the 17th century, with their high scarlet heels and great butterfly shapes over the instep. During most of that time, women’s feet “like little mice stole in and out” (as Sir John Suckling put it in 1641) from under the hems of floor-length skirts. No wonder modern women went overboard once their skirts rose off the ground and pants became an option. Again and again, feminine fashion in this century has exploited the powerful erotic character of footgear, just when modern men’s shoes had begun to retreat into simplicity along with the rest of the male wardrobe.
The shoe story is much more complex today. We want to mask our deep love of bondage and ferocity with the rhetoric of comfort, fitness, and athletic glory. Men can play that game too, and anybody’s shoes can now combine madness and badness with gestures toward utility. The flabby man on the bus wears wrinkled pants, shirt, and windbreaker in nondescript shades of gray, but on his feet are enormous shoes sculpted out of bulbous shapes in dazzling white and purple, Olympic echoes in a sedentary life. The tiny black dress of a scrawny girl at a party exposes thin whittled legs ending in vast square-toed ankle boots just perfect for hiking over miles of Himalayan glacier or surviving in the trenches during World War I. Delicate pumps would never set off her frame as well as these monsters do.
The erotic charge comes from the shoes being crippling and enabling at the same time, the effect traditionally produced by very high heels. They lift the lady up, seductively tighten her leg muscles, and thrust her forward as if to launch her into the air and into her future, even as they shorten her stride and increase her risk of tripping. High heels look elegant and dangerous, like those endless pointed shoes on the medieval princes, but they are also thrilling, like roller blades, figure skates, or toe shoes. They are fierce engines of art, designed to demonstrate that an authoritative grace can transcend all danger, inconvenience, and absurdity.
All this is possible because feet themselves are so banally utilitarian and infinitely sexy, with sensitive nerve endings and suggestive shapes clothing the tough muscle and articulated bone that carry us around. Feet can kick and stomp and trample, or receive and give refined caresses; they can make us dance like angels or march like brutes. But they’re also acutely helpless, with skin that’s much too touchy and toes that aren’t so clever. They need help in a way hands don’t. Like ears, feet are natural jewels that cry out for visual emphasis. From my high window, I can see faraway people walking on Sixth Avenue, their little white sneakers giving a pearly edge to each stride.
The notorious Chinese binding of female feet emphasized their tenderness by reducing them to living sweetmeats wrapped in silk–the lily foot was meant to slide easily into a lover’s mouth. We are now perversely disposed to do the same thing with clumpy boots that box feet in or puffy shoes that muffle them up with blobs or colorful wadding, to which delicious concoctions have been added–the weighty clogs with dainty straps, the lofty heels with splayed bottoms. These are endless new treats for the shoe fetishist who seems to lurk in every modern soul, by turns obsessed with rapid mobility and paralyzed victimhood, high prowess and low violence.