Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shoe stories

Like most women, I love shoes. I have more pairs than I care to admit and yet always seem to need more.

This morning's Woman's Hour on Radio 4 featured artist Alice Instone talking about her latest exhibition Interview with a Shoe. The shoes in question are described as belonging to some of the most influential individuals in London and each pair tells a story, revealing something about the owner.

If you are lucky enough to be in the Bethnal Green area of London in the next two weeks, there are lots of reasons to visit the exhibition: love of contemporary art,
curiosity about celebrities, interest in the role of shoes in literature or the history of fashion or in the ethics of the present day fashion industry. The charity Dress for Success, which helps promote the independence of disadvantaged women, will benefit from the proceeds of the exhibition.

The interview with Alice Instone reminded me of the significance of shoes in our lives. What woman can forget her first pair of high heels or the first pair of shoes she bought for her baby? Who can escape the impact of the image of the thousands of shoes confiscated from the victims of the Holocaust?
While out walking last week, I met an elderly lady from my church; she looked distressed so I stopped while she poured out her shoe story, a m
emory triggered by something she had just overheard. Maria is eighty years old, Austrian by birth but having lived in England since 1947. She was not quite fifteen when the Russian army invaded her village in Austria in April 1945. Already on the point of starvation, they had the added terror of stories of rape and violence as the soldiers advanced. Maria and her two older sisters fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and a little food. Maria was wearing an old pair of boots, passed down from her sisters.

The girls spent many weeks on the road, sleeping under hedges and eating whatever they could get. They eventually reached Bavaria, where they hoped to find the family of a German soldier they had met. By this time it was summer and Maria's feet were really suffering from the long journey and the heavy boots. The sisters found the family they were looking for and were taken in, although the lack of food and clothes was as bad as in their own village. There were no shoes to spare but the
grandfather took his knife and cut Maria's boots to make her a pair of rough sandals: "The most beautiful shoes I have ever owned."

My own shoe story is far less noble but it taught me a salutary lesson.

I had an unfashionably happy childhood. We were not at all well-off but my mother contrived to dress us well and always took us to have our feet measured for our sturdy leather brogues and sandals, polished every night before we wer
e allowed our cocoa. How she managed to keep four of us in the required outdoor shoes, indoor shoes, gym shoes, hockey or soccer boots, as well as wellingtons, slippers and play shoes I cannot imagine. But, when you are a stroppy teenager, such thoughts do not enter your selfish head.

I wanted a pair of fashionable slip-on shoes instead of the Clark's indoor shoes I was supposed to have for school. I was thirteen and "all my fri
ends' mothers let them have fashion shoes." I must have worn my mother out, because I got a pair of cheap and rather nasty shoes with very pointed toes. They were very uncomfortable, more slip-off than slip-on but I strutted around in them and insisted on wearing them when we went to visit my Aunt Margaret in Cheshire, where everyone looks down upon their Lancashire neighbours.

We all went out for a walk after lunch but I couldn't keep up in the wretched shoes, which were really hurting by this time, pinching my toes and rubbing my heels. We had been joined on the walk by my aunt's friend and I heard them talking about my awful footwear. My aunt said, "Poor Winnie, she does her best but I expect they were all she could afford with four children to look after." I don't think I have ever quite forgiven myself for bringing such shame on my mother. I certainly never argued with her again when we went to buy our "sensible" shoes.

I suppose I deserved to have a daughter who insisted on choosing to wear her father's shoes to a party!


  1. Great post, great stories.
    All I ever wanted was a pair of patent leather shoes (we too had to have Clarks' finest sensibles), I never got them. My own daughters had Start Rite dolly shoes, and then- patent- of course. Which turned out to be quite hard wearing, contrary to my mother's beliefs.
    I do remember one pair of summer shoes, bought on holiday after pestering my dad for days. They had crepe soles. I don't know if it's the way I walk, but I tripped up in them continually, but had to wear them after all that pestering. (I do miss the proper sandals we wore in summer, boys and girls- the ones with the cut out fronts.)

  2. I loved shoes too and had a lot of them. After we got married, my new husband couldn't believe we needed to make a special trip to get my shoes to our new apartment. He was doubly stunned when it took two trips to do it. Those were the days!

  3. Rattling On, I remember the myth about patent leather; my mother refused to buy those lovely shiny shoes because she thought they wouldn't last.

    e, I love the idea of two trips for shoes. Men just don't understand, do they?

  4. Fascinating post, M, and it's hard to think of any other item of clothing that can encompass tragedy and comedy.

    My childhood wasn't particularly happy (although I'd resist calling it fashionably unhappy . . . !) and strangely enough, the first gift that my now-you-see-him, now-you-don't father bought me was a pair of shoes. I must have been about 12 and he was more than happy to indulge my pre-teen longings for white frosted leather winklepickers, to ingratiate himself and to try to make up for his long and unexplained absences.

    My mother, who had kept careful watch over my growing feet and had shod them in sensible Start-Rites etc was horrified. But too late, the die was cast and I've been a sucker for shoes ever since.

    (Rattling On - I had a pair of crepe-soled sandals when I was young. They were very hard to walk in . . . .)

  5. That photo of the pile of shoes in the concentration camp is simply horrifying. We all have those sorts of rows with our mothers at 13 or 14. Mine was over a mini-skirt I wanted, if memory serves, and I can actually remember shouting at her over it. Terrible, because, like your mother, she was bringing myself and my disabled brother up on her own. But I wasn't interested in that, I just wanted to look like the other girls. Awful how shallow teenagers can be and amazing how forgiving mothers are. Lovely post, M.

  6. 60 ...


    Googled 'em up and they seem to be pointy toed men's shoes.

    I'm guessing that's not what your 12 year old self had in mind.

  7. erp - even Google gets it wrong sometimes! In the 1960s winklepickers (shoes with very long pointed toes) were worn by young people (female as well as male) here in the UK. So, yes, I aspired to wearing winklepickers . . . the longer and more pointed the better!

    There's a brief reference on wikipedia:

  8. Guess I'm not very feminine - I have no idea when I got my first pair of high heels - probably as I've always preferred no shoes at all over shoes. And if I have to wear shoes they have to be comfortable, walking shoes and sandals are my kind of shoes. No problems to move my shoes I can carry them all in a small bag!

  9. Heh. Short wear was the not myth about patent leather shoes that my sister was inflicted with by the nuns at St. Pius X High School.

  10. Wonderful post, Maureen! I have very few pairs of shoes myself. My favorites are a pair of Clark's slip-on sandals that I have had for a few years now. They are nicely broken inand are the most comfortable shoes I own. Those and my Crocs are usually on my feet. :)

  11. Sorry for the delay in responding to all the comments - I have been away for a few days at a family wedding.

    D and erp, those awful shoes I bought were winklepickers, too. My toes have never been the same since!

    Cath, I suppose that mother-daughter relationships have to be tested at least once. Perhaps we each need a painful memory of our own behaviour to make us better mothers in our turn?

    Margaretha, do you have some other weakness instead of shoes? Perhaps you have a secret store of hats or bags?

    Harry, your sister seems to have a very difficult time with those strange nuns. My own experience of convent high school was of being encouraged to feel that girls were as academically able as boys and that we should aspire to do well.

    Karin, you and Margaretha put us all to shame. I can see that the shoes will have to go!

  12. A family wedding sounds as a lot of fun!

    Me having a weakness!

    Well, I have to admit that I'm a pack rat. I've learnt from the generations before me never to throw away anything that might be useful.
    Come to think of it, books are indeed my weak point - but I know that I'm not the only one here who can't resist a book.

  13. A word in defense of nuns.

    Although though my family isn't Roman Catholic and I had never seen a nun before and didn't speak a word of English, I was sent to a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Charity from first to eighth grade.

    Everything I know about civilized behavior, courtesy, manners, not to mention, copulative verbs and other oddities of English grammar, history, geography (my geography book served as a life-long guide to my future travels) was learned from those lovely soft-spoken and gentle Irish girls.

    I'll never forget their kindness to a scared child and sixty years after I left them, they still occupy a special place in my heart.

  14. e, I'm glad that your experience of convent school was as good as mine.


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