Friday, May 20, 2011

It Doesn't Matter if the Shoes Fit ... As Long as Everyone Else is Wearing Them

"I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty."
... Imelda Remedios Visitacion Romualdez Marcos

A deposed dictator's wife, her shoe obsession was held up as an indication of an arrogant, self-absorbed lack of regard for the common man. But, let's be honest. Imelda was in good company.

Oprah, Carrie Bradshaw, Victoria Beckham, Danielle Steele, Tina Turner, Kim Kardashian, Barbie. These women, real and imagined, have amassed footwear collections that wouldn't fit in my house much less my closet. These women have woven shoes into their media mythology. They're beautiful. They're rich. They're spoiled. They can, if they choose, take Paul Simon's advice and wear "diamonds on the soles of their shoes." Literally.

I get it; I do. Shoes are a perfect union of function and fashion. They can get us where we need to go — and ensure we turn heads once we get there. The right ones are exquisite little works of art, ornamenting the most mundane parts of our bodies. In fact, there's something symbolic about putting so much money (hundreds or even thousands of dollars) into an accessory that will be scuffed and dragged and scraped along the ground. "No sweat," you're telling the world. "I can afford it, and I'm worth it. 'Don't like it? You can kiss my ... feet."

In this culture, at least, women of all ages, backgrounds and financial means join in the hunt for the perfect pair. You can find as many enthusiastic shoe shoppers in the discount aisles of Marshalls as you can on the plush banquettes at Neiman Marcus.

But, at what age do females become obsessed with shoes? As the mother of a tween, I'm here to tell you it's young, very young, younger than you might think.

I blame Cinderella. How does she win her man? It's not through her smarts, through hard work, through her kindness or her gentle nature. It's not even through her good looks. Cinderella gets the guy because ... the shoe fits. Instant happy ending! Really, why haven't more shoe companies leveraged the whole Cinderella story? Talk about a product placement made in ad agency heaven.

Then, there's Dorothy. Dorothy Gale, remember her? Her ruby slippers were the key to getting an audience with the so-called wonderful wizard and getting back home to her beloved, if colorless, Kansas. One of the original pairs worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 movie (there were several used during filming), sold at auction in 2000 for $660,000. And, Harry Winston created a tribute pair with 25 karats of genuine diamonds and rubies, valued at $3 million. That's a lot of Milk Bones, Toto!

My daughter had ruby slippers for a few years, although I found them at Target and they cost considerably less than the Winston versions (oh, about $2,999,990 less). Every Christmas, Target displayed bright red glitter slippers and I bought several pairs. They were my daughter's signature look at Sundance Preschool. The girl had style!

Soon, however, the need to conform to her peers became stronger than her desire to look like a movie star. Suddenly, ruby slippers were out and light-up sneakers were in. They were actually pretty cool. Diminutive athletic shoes with lights along the sides and on the soles. Stomp your foot or run through the playground with a particularly heavy gait, and your classmates were treated to an impromptu light show. There were Disney Princess, Teletubbies, Sponge Bob and Dora the Explorer options. Stride Rite and other top shelf children's shoemakers had versions of these, but economical moms could find them cheaper.

Then, around third or fourth grade, my daughter and her friends suddenly realized that there were different price points where shoes were concerned. I regret to report that the assumption they made (and we, as adults, seem to make too) was that the more you spend, the more you get, the more worthy you are. Labels became oh so important. The girls didn't want boots; they wanted Uggs. They didn't want sneakers; they wanted Nikes. They didn't want sandals; they wanted Crocs.

Let's talk about Crocs for a minute. My favorite quote comes from my husband. "$40 for rubber shoes? What a crock!" Not only did all the girls need (yes, that would be "need," not "want") Crocs, but they also had to amass a vast collection of "Jibbitz," the clip-on jewels, insignia and characters that adorn them.

(Full disclosure here, I tried a pair of Crocs myself. They were very comfortable, but made my feet dirty. They went on to the local good will in practically perfect condition.)

The other tween brand worth mentioning — and one that is having a longer shoe shelf life than the Croc, which fell out of style halfway through sixth grade — is Ugg. Ugg boots are very warm, very stylish and very very very expensive. There are plenty of sheepskin boots that approximate the look of Uggs, but the girls know which are genuine and which are "fuggs" or "fake Uggs." My daughter is an ardent animal lover and I thought that might convince her to try synthetic fuggs instead. After all, as PETA activist Pamela Anderson finally realized years after pairing the boots with her bathing suit, sheepskin Uggs are made out of ... uh ... sheepskin. (Ms. Anderson set blondes back a bit with that one, I'm afraid.) But, no dice.

(Another confession, I also have a pair of Uggs. They were marked down to $50 at T.J. Maxx and I've had them almost twelve years. I've worn them so many times, and they've been subjected to so much snow and ice and salt, that they are mere shadows of their former selves. My daughter recently sniffed, "Mom, are those supposed to be black?")

So, here's the bottom line. Do I really have the right to criticize my daughter's shoe choices when I've made the same choices myself? Is it fair to think that Crocs and Uggs (or ruby slippers and light-up sneakers) are silly when I have a small but beloved collection of Christian Louboutins (if one pair, splurged upon for a very special family wedding, constitutes a collection)?

At least, I know my daughter and I are not alone. While other apparel categories have seen a decline during the recent recession, shoe sales have actually increased. This is especially true for luxury women's brands like Louboutin, Blahnik and Choo. Is it because of Sex and the City? Or because heels give us an extra lift and we all long to be taller? Or because shoes still fit no matter how many helpings of lasagna we've had?

It's a mystery. But, like mother like daughter. If the shoe fits — and it's pretty and it's on sale and I still have twenty minutes to kill before a lunch meeting — I'll buy it.

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