Shoe Shine Girl

20th July 2012

Kathy Miller charts an enduring obsession

despite all the burning issues of the moment – Tom Cruise’s divorce, the dumbing down of GCSEs and what the bankers have been up to – one question keeps bugging me: does Kate Middleton use Odor-Eaters?

I ask this because the Duchess of Cambridge's somewhat predictable choice of footwear has made headlines almost daily for a year. Yes, I know she recently wore leather-lined wellies (Le Chameau; £160 a pair) to visit a primary school at camp, but it's the ubiquitous beige LK Bennett platforms (£195 a pair) that I'm wondering about…

Never has the title Her Royal ‘Highness’ been so apt. Does she sleep in those heels? Are they, in fact, glued on?

Rarely is the Duchess seen not wearing her LKBs; they appeared throughout the Jubilee celebrations, at a tree-planting ceremony in Canada, at Zara Phillips' wedding…

Some of these events must be awfully hot for the royal feet. How do they stay fragrant without frequent use of an aroma-inhibitng agent? Or perhaps the woman who is expected to produce an heir and a spare has a pair to wear and a pair to air?

One fashionista deduced that the Duchess must indeed have at least two pairs of LKBs, after she was spotted wearing shoes almost identical to her usual 'nudes' but in an oh-so-subtly different shade, and went online to ask: is taupe the new beige?

For those who don't know their Ferragamos from their Kurt Geigers, or their Manolo Blahniks from their Charles Jourdans, the media and public obsession with the nuances of shoe hue will be just one step too far. Cobblers, even. But for the rest of us…

What is afoot here? Are most of us really (shoe) closet fetishists? Even those of us who don’t actually possess a pair of designer shoes, are mostly familiar with the major labels. Even brands that languish at the more functional end of the spectrum, such as Timberland and Birkenstock, are household names. Incredibly, Doc Marten boots, once de rigeur for every self-respecting 1970s bovver boy, have been revamped in pink and floral patterns as the 'love to have' for teenage girls.

In some circles, people are judged by their shoes rather than by their clothes. I bet all you female readers the price of a pair of Jimmy Choos that you'd soon get cold feet if a man turned up for a first date sporting two-tone brogues. He might as well show you his fungal toenails.

Wear your Hush Puppies to a job interview and, however smart your suit, you'll find yourself hot-footing it back home before you get a toe (fungal or otherwise) in the door. Sandals with socks? White stilettos in the winter? That really would be overstepping the mark. And as for peep-toe crossover sandals… I don't think even vicars' wives wear them any more.

If worrying about the logo on the underside of your shoe sounds too superficially 21st century, simply step back in time [oh, yes, these puns just keep on coming…] and you’ll stumble upon an enduring fascination with feet, footwear and… lurve.

In 970 AD, when the Chinese ruler Li Yu compared his concubine's dainty feet to a lotus blossom (a popular poetic symbol of erotic pleasure), every family in the land began binding their daughters' feet into a shape resembling the flower in order to secure rich husbands – even if the price of love meant a lifetime of pain and disability. Earlier still, legend has it that Helen of Troy was admired as much for having a second toe longer than her big toe, as she was for a face that launched a thousand ships.

Shoes are central to several well-worn children's stories, including The Wizard of Oz (which resulted red shoes with a cheeky bow being called Dorothy shoes to this day) and Hans Christian Anderson's cautionary tale, The Red Shoes, in which the vain heroine is doomed to dance for eternity.

Even Cinderella didn't accept the Prince's proposal until he found her missing shoe. How different the story might have been had Cinderella been wearing 'Sledge pumps', as the Duchess of Cambridge's fave shoes are known. She couldn't have danced until midnight, for a start. (I don't want to put my foot in it here, but don’t 'sledge pumps' sound more like something that would come in handy in deep snow than the modern equivalent of satin slippers?)

History also tells us that heels and excess often trod the same path. Today's Christian Louboutin wasn't the first man to think of putting red soles on high-heeled shoes (from £400 a pair): the wildly extravagant Kings of France wore them first. Mind you, look what happened to them.

Neither did the 1970s invent platform shoes. Wedgy chopine shoes, some as high as 30 inches, were all the rage for aristocrats in 16th century Venice, where height was associated with social status. Initially, the church gave the shoes its stamp of approval because they impeded dancing. However, when pregnant women started to miscarry after falling off their platforms, the ecclesiastical authorities stepped in and the vertiginously high chopines were outlawed.

Four centuries earlier, when wealthy 12th century nobles took to wearing ridiculously pointy-toed poulaine shoes, the church had considered the shoes obscene and tried to ban them, too. The church may have had a point [ha, ha]: many poulaines had bells on their tips, useful for extra-marital flirting – hence the expression 'playing footsie'.

So, sex appeal and shoes go together. Power and money too. I'll dip my toe in the water and guess that contemporary shoe snobbery started in the 60s, when you were either a Start-Rite or a Clarks family. Thanks to its royal warrant, Start-Rite was usually the preference for well-heeled parents (although as a Clarks kid myself, I never understood why the Queen bought her children's shoes from people who couldn't spell properly…).
You don't have to be Imelda Marcos to understand that glamorous shoes lift the spirits and put a spring in our step. We walk tall (sometimes literally) in new shoes and while killer heels may be fatal for our bank balance, they always cheer us up. You can put on half a stone and your waistband won't fit, but your shoes still do.

One elegant man I know admits to owning ten pairs of black shoes, all by Jeffery West (from £280 a pair) and believes that quality footwear is vital to making a favourable first impression. And after all, besides a brightly-coloured tie and a prestigious Swiss timepiece, they are just about the only item of frippery a modern man is allowed.

“If a man has the right watch and the right shoes, he can get away with anything,” he said, adding “And one of the first things I notice about a woman is her shoes. Shoes definitely give out a signal.”

For another friend, designer shoes figured prominently in her early marriage, when her husband would choose them for her. Rupert Sanderson shoes did it for her, and fortunately for her relationship, her husband knew what she liked. At £495 for a pair of patent courts, Rupert Sandersons aren't for those on a shoestring budget, but perhaps it's a small price to pay for an investment in marital harmony.

After all, I can't imagine any marriage surviving if the man's idea of a fitting gift for his wife were a pair of tan lace-ups with Cornish pasty soles, can you? Prince William take note.

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