November 2006

Shod through the heart

"To a greater or lesser extent," write the Alfars, "the shoes you wear express the kind of person you are — or the kind of person you'd like to be perceived as."

MATIT Villasin-Wood, 33 years old, former singer/theater artist, currently a dental hygiene student in Santa Clara, California, owns 50+ pairs of shoes, including those she left in Manila\

IN HER article “Shoe Obsession Disorder,” Houston Chronicle writer Kathy Gibson postulated that Cinderella’s stepsisters were badly behaved not so much because they envied Cinderella’s grace and beauty, but because they coveted her famous glass slippers. It’s not an entirely unreasonable theory, since the first known version of the Cinderella story is an Egyptian one, concerning a young girl called Rhodopis; and Egypt, after all, is the first known civilization to have developed, among various other groundbreaking innovations, Really Fancy Shoes.

Shoes in general are recognized to have been around since about 8000 B.C. Presumably, sometime after man learned to walk upright, he realized that this was, in fact, painful to do on rocky ground, and decided to remedy the situation. The earliest examples of shoes found to date were simple protective sandals of braided grass or rawhide, which likely remained the worldwide standard until literal millennia later — around 3000 B.C. — when the aforementioned Egyptians started making truly artistic footwear out of papyrus, hemp, and later, leather. These included elaborate creations with long, upward-curving toes, which were reserved for the exclusive use of kings, princes, or priests.

Thus the concept of shoe as status symbol was born. It hardly ended there, either — by 100 A.D., shoes were a primary means of differentiating Greek citizens from their slaves, who were not allowed to walk around shod. A hundred years later, the Roman emperor Aurelius passed a law proclaiming that only he and his successors were permitted to wear red sandals. By the 1400s, manly knights willingly endured shoes known as crackows, with elongated toes of up to 24 inches in length, which were undoubtedly uncomfortable and quite probably hazardous to wear, but which nevertheless clearly announced to all and sundry that the wearer was a knight of the realm.

By then, it had evidently become entrenched in the human consciousness that shoes serve to define identity, allegiance, and prestige. We may not think about it in quite such concrete terms these days, but it’s fair to say that even the least shoe-obsessed person does not choose his or her shoes simply for the purpose of protecting the feet. Aside from their more practical functions, shoes identify us as members of a particular group — as demonstrated by the recent popularity of Havaiana slippers, which look virtually identical to regular tsinelas, but are priced in a range perversely unaffordable to the eponymous tsinelas crowd. Admittedly, they are softer and more flexible, but more importantly, they’re Havaianas — or flipflops. Certainly not mere tsinelas!

The point is, Havaianas are elite shoes for elite people, as Nikes are sporty shoes for sporty people and Manolos are fashionable shoes for fashionable people. To a greater or lesser extent, the shoes you wear express the kind of person you are — or the kind of person you’d like to be perceived as. Of course, the same case could be argued for clothing, but, as Kathy Gibson pointed out in her article, “Feet don’t have hips, feet don’t have thighs…feet are our friends.”

IF THE shoes you want don’t fit you, it’s because they’re the wrong size. It’s not because your breasts are too small or your belly’s too big. It’s the shoe’s fault, or the store’s fault, but certainly not your fault, as contrasted with the feeling of despairing inadequacy often experienced when buying jeans or, worse, swimsuits. It’s not surprising, then, that the huge majority of shoe shopping addicts happen to be women.

Women love shoes. Yes, there are men who like them quite a bit too, but few heterosexual men can begin to comprehend the sense of sheer glee a woman experiences at the mere prospect of a shoe sale. Never mind the predictable crowds. Never mind the unpredictable likelihood of there actually being Cute Shoes (this being a highly subjective, yet universally embraced term) in the appropriate size.

Indeed, a woman who will faint at the sight of a syringe will voluntarily and even joyfully cram her foot into a shoe two sizes too small and wear said footwear for hours on end for the sake of looking good. Despite the escalating agony of such prolonged podiatric abuse, she will actually feel good, too — which brings us to the conundrum of mankind inventing the shoe in the first place to alleviate pain, only to have womankind essentially embrace pain later on down the line, in the form of the high heel.

High heels are said to have been invented by legendary artist Leonardo da Vinci (which may go a long way toward explaining that famously uncomfortable smile seen on the face of the Mona Lisa) in the 1500s. Although they were initially intended for the literal uplifting of short men, high heels were soon enthusiastically adopted by women as a stylish alternative to the patten, a sort of slipper on a raised metal base, which was worn over (and under) shoes in order to protect them from mud and rain. These were used not only in Europe, but also in Japan, where geishas used wooden geta to elevate their shoes off the ground.

The geta should not be confused with the lotus or lily-foot shoe, which was popular in China from the 10th to the 19th centuries, and measured no more than three inches in length. The feet of highborn girls were bound and their arches actually broken in childhood in order to fit into these shoes, thus ensuring that their feet remained dainty, delicate, and therefore desirable. Some lily-foot shoes were made out of silk or satin, but the truly high-end versions were made from porcelain, not only because this was more effective at inhibiting growth, but also because it clearly demonstrated that the wearer was so nobly born she need never concern herself with the practicality of shoes that were actually meant to touch the ground.

Thankfully, the debilitating custom of foot binding was outlawed in 1911, not too long after the invention of the lotus shoe’s diametric opposite, the plimsoll, in the mid-1800s. Created with comfort and durability in mind, plimsolls did have at least one thing in common with lotus shoes: they were intended to accomplish a purpose. Now variously called sneakers, trainers, or rubber shoes, the many versions of The Footwear Formerly Known as Plimsolls are touted to help athletes run faster, jump higher, endure longer, and, certainly, look cooler. It seems to bother no one that many of the supposedly most technologically advanced athletic shoes appear to be bulkier and heavier than even a weightlifter should have to contend with; but then, as the saying goes, “no pain, no gain”. Or as the French put it, “one must suffer in order to be beautiful.”

IRONICALLY, COUTURE aside, the French are best known in shoe history for the sabot, a wooden shoe that mill workers would hurl into the machinery at their workplaces in order to make the mills shut down. Not only did this practice give rise to the word “sabotage” and presage the French revolution, it cemented the notion that shoes are more than just fun, functional, fashionable, and symbolic — they’re also political.

VINCENT de Jesus, 38, musical director and composer, has 37 pairs of shoes (including sandals).

This brings us back, full circle, to children’s stories and their unintentional brainwashing on the subject of shoes. Cinderella was far from the only tale with a shoe twist, after all. In an earlier, non-Disney version, Snow White’s stepmother was punished for her sins by being made to dance in a pair of iron shoes, heated red-hot. The heroine from the fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon had to search for her lost love while clad in a similar pair of metal clogs (though fortunately at room temperature), while the poor girl in the tale of The Red Shoes danced to her death in the eponymous footwear. The Wicked Witch of the East in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books was not only crushed by an unexpected falling house, but — horror of horrors! — had her ruby slippers taken from her, post-mortem.

Nearly from birth, therefore, we are told that shoes, while undoubtedly dangerous with their seductive charms (particularly red ones, it seems), are time-honored and utterly essential accessories needed for traveling the path to power and prestige. Princesses, witches, knights, and emperors may be defined by their deeds, but they are also unified, apparently, by their common possession of fancy shoes. To return to our original example, one can only imagine the discomfort and constant dread of imminent laceration Cinderella would have endured wearing shoes made entirely of glass — yet she danced in them, not just till midnight, but eventually, all the way to the throne.

In these more plebeian times we live in, of course, shoes cannot exactly be relied upon to deliver us straight to a royal wedding. But they do make us look good, feel good — and yes, incidentally, they happen to protect our feet. These are not unimportant benefits at a time when global media and the Internet keep us uncomfortably aware of hardship and tragedy happening all around us. In times like these, it’s simply reassuring to be able to buy and wear a little portable happiness — our heads may be awash in stress and anxiety, but our feet, at least, are not only firmly on the ground, they are also fashionably so. So really, even at the staggering expense of over $400 for a pair of Manolo Blahniks, you could write it off as a small enough price to pay for your own little personal happy ending.

Or, you know, a closet full of them.

Between the two of them, married writers Dean Francis and Nikki Alfar have accumulated 11 Palanca Awards, three National Book Awards, and sundry publications, not counting Dean’s National Book Award-nominated anthology, Philippine Speculative Fiction, volume 2 of which is coming out in December this year. Aside from their precociously brilliant four-year-old daughter Sage, this article is their first actual collaboration.

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