Among the brilliant things I never did — check mark on the chalkboard of “woulda, coulda, shoulda” — was an art project I conceived of in my late teens, in which I was going to take Polaroid photographs of my feet clad in favorite pairs of shoes. An autobiography in footwear. For decades I thought of this every time I looked in a mirror and scanned my image from crown to toe, and every time I turned the lock of the bathroom stall in an underground nightclub, lowering my fishnet tights or hip-hugger bell bottoms (depending on the calendar date of my progression through the stages of late-20th-century counterculture) and looking down at my legs in a bedlam of graffiti and screaming guitars.
My shoes during the hideous years of middle school — autumns of tortured conformity, lockers smelling of spoiled sandwiches and damp leaves — were not remarkable. I recall ugly, orangey Bass 100 oxfords bought in seventh grade from a display wall of disco-era-college-coed platforms at the shoe store on Main Street, and a pair of stiff penny loafers from the Sears catalog, with a shiny penny in the slot, that made me feel uncomfortable. The first truly notable shoes I owned, shoes that meant something to me, were original white-canvas Converse high-tops I got a hold of in eighth grade and spray-painted red. Converse didn’t make them in a variety of colors back then, just black or white, as worn by the Ramones (gabba, gabba, hey!). It was an act of perverse daring to get up the courage to go into Tillinghast’s hardware store alone and buy the paint. I sprayed them in the driveway behind the Star office. Lord, I was a ballsy child.
Soon I had moved on to British punk and the Sex Pistols look of purple-suede ankle boots with bondage straps and buckles across the arches and toes so wicked-witch pointy they drew stares from civilians on the sidewalk. My helpful friend Antonia, always ready with a emark, told me she was embarrassed to be seen with me out in public when I was wearing those monstrosities. The purple suede bondage boots arrived my freshman year of high school.
The next year, lacing up in the New England morning of a white-clapboard dorm room at Concord Academy in Massachusetts, to the tune of “Ever Fallen in Love” by the Buzzcocks, it was camouflage combat boots from an Army-Navy store UpIsland. Later still, my freshman year at Columbia College, heavy, camel-colored Frye boots — the original kind, with the brass circle bits and chunk heel. My roommate and I were experimenting recklessly with a 1970s fashion revival inspired by the long-haired look of the pop-glam band the Sweet. (It was only 1985.)
During the late-1980s era of giant, puffy, white sneakers — giant white sneakers worn not by me, I hope it goes without saying — my friends and I played a sort of shoe-based parlor game, not in a parlor, but while riding the New York City subway. We’d look down at the dirty floor of the 1, 2, 3 IRT, pick a fellow passenger, and invent an identity for them based solely on their footwear: We’d guess their job, their neighborhood, their hobbies. . . . “This is Carlo,” we might say, eyeballing a pair of cognac-colored crocodile loafers. “Carlo lives in a white-brick apartment house on the East Side, not far from the U.N. The greatest night of his life was the night in 1976 when he met Cheryl Tiegs at Maxwell’s Plum.”
We all wore Frankenshoes in the early 1990s, when I lived in Hungary: black Mary Janes with two inches of black-rubber platform under the sole and four inches of chunky black-rubber heel. The aesthetic raison d’etre behind Frankenshoes was that you need something bulky on your feet to balance out the weight of your head, with its huge mass of tangled hair, and the bulk of your hips. If you wore something delicate, something that diminished the foot — a ballerina flat or sharp heel — it would only make the rest of the body look large by comparison. That was the concept. In rubber platform shoes we ran up and down the streets of central Europe at night. We ran and we bounced, each meeting of rubber and pavement launching us skyward in bounds.
Frankenshoes were followed by a couple of years in which I expressed my disgust with the infantile and throw-away consumerist culture of fin de siecle America by only dressing in vintage clothes dating from the 1930s and 1940s — and I mean down to my undergarments. (I did! I wore vintage nylons, teddies, and camisoles.) I’m lucky to have relatively small feet, and didn’t have trouble at the Sixth Avenue flea market finding bowed darlings in cherry-red patent and pugnosed peep toes in green suede.
The frail Manolo Blahnik stiletto came in around 1995, a necessary pendulum correction to the Frankenshoe. The junior fashion copywriters whose work I edited at Vogue before the turn of the millennium had to be chastised (by me) when they overused the terms “vertiginous” and “strappy sandals.” I did wear the vertiginous strappy sandals for a moment there, voluntarily — as an experiment — subsuming my individualism to the requirements of the luxury-goods status system, which ran on logos and the early acquisition of them. It wasn’t as gratifying as I’d hoped to have all the best logos before everyone else.
I’ll brag and add here that in the late 1990s I was also an early adopter of the classic Run-DMC Adidas three-stripe sneaker, as well as the Puma with the neon-swerve logo.
And I’ll go right ahead and temper that brag by admitting that I am still wearing those Adidas, 20 years later. Stylish toddlers have been sporting the three-stripe Adidas for a decade and more, too; three-stripe Adidas mean nothing today as a social signifier, other than “basic.”
I’m no longer a ballsy child. The accrued weight of aging — accrued experience, accrued avoirdupois — has completely disinclined me to signal my uniqueness via my fashion or my footwear. They say you disappear, as a woman, when you cross the bar of 40. This is completely true. I am among the invisible. No one is looking at me or my shoes. Apparently some women take comfort in this, but I cannot say I really do.
Right this minute, I’m wearing boring camouflage Havaianas flip-flops that, I believe, were hand-me-downs from one of my nieces, who no doubt rid herself of them because camo is totally demode. My teenaged self would be alarmed. While the descent into Havaianas may have made a good Polaroid installment in my visual autobiography — a later-life stage that reveals something about gender, age, and anonymity — I do wonder if I may have let myself slide into the shoes-don’t-matter chapter too soon.
I’m not too old to hope for a glass slipper.
I comfort myself with the mental snapshot I took in the mid-2010s of the huge, safety-yellow turnout boots I wore when I was a volunteer firefighter in Nova Scotia — a surprising turn of events, shoe-wise — and by the frankly hideous but utilitarian black “tactical” boots I wear sometimes these days while E.M.T.-ing. The E.M.T.-ing boots have both shoelaces and a side-zip and make each foot look like a lump of coal. Well, you see? The latest installations in my shoe biography are determined by what I do, rather than by what impression I want to make. That’s progress of another sort, I am sure.