The cult of the shoe

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By Harriet Walker

London - This time last year, I signed a contract to write a book about footwear, the fantasies and fanaticism that it excites, the fetishes, the fastidiousness, the fashionable flamboyance.

Twelve hours later, I broke my leg in three places falling off a pair of platform ankle boots and had to be stretchered out of a bar in Soho.

In recent years, shoes have become a sort of celebration of being human. Even the most ascetic of shoppers can succumb to a brightly coloured pair of trainers or a high heel; even those who profess to have no interest in fashion or trend cycles end up a part of the process - from sneakerheads to goths to sports fans and even sparkly princesses.

The book I wrote, embarked upon while I was in plaster from hip to toe, is called Cult Shoes, an attempt to codify and encompass the breadth of interest and aesthetic that footwear obsessions can take in. It isn't simply about tottering stilettos or galumphing wedges: it's about any form of footwear that has created a following for itself, be it a Birkenstock or a Manolo Blahnik. It's also about those who have entered the footwear hall of fame, figures such as Gabrielle Chanel, Carrie Bradshaw and Imelda Marcos.

Paradoxically, the humble shoe is at once one of fashion's most accessible and most exclusive offshoots. We all wear shoes; we all need them. But as far as everyday items go, they are some of the most highly constructed, the most highly designed and, arguably, the most complex.

The labour that goes into the production of a pair of shoes is a vocation unto itself, an artisanal heritage that abides even now in some of the loftier labels. The triumvirate of Blahnik, Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin is emblematic of the skill and craftsmanship the discipline demands: despite the introduction of mass production and mass marketing, the footwear greats remain those who work in this traditional and individualistic vein. These venerated shoemakers are the architects of the fashion world, working against gravity and heft, often against reality itself.

But footwear flights of fantasy are nothing new: in 2011, the British Museum exhibited a first-century slipper with a solid-gold sole as part of its show Afghanistan: Crossroads Of The Ancient World. Treating the feet as ornaments is one of the most ancient and most emphatic ways of proving status: the more money one lavishes on one's feet, the more obvious it is that those feet are not expected to walk very far.

Not much has changed, I realised, sofa-bound and surrounded by imagery of some of the world's most beautiful shoes. But the latterday psychology around shoes is an interesting one. Shoes are somehow not deemed to be fashion “proper”, and so feel more accessible to more people. In straitened times, there is a versatility to footwear, and a durability, that means we are content to spend more than we would perhaps on any other item of clothing, bar our winter coat. For that reason, sales of accessories (a label which encompasses both shoes and handbags) have seen less of a slide than those in clothing, and footwear remains an important “entry-level” purchase for many high-end brands.

Then there's the happy fact that no matter what fluctuations in weight we endure, chances are, our shoes will always fit us. Even people who hate shopping don't seem to mind shoe-shopping.

They are also a means of expression not deemed too showy; our inner Lutheran may eschew clothing that is garish or ostentatiously high-end, but we're much less puritanical about what we wear on our feet. Any woman can wear a pair of ruby slippers, but it's a rare one who'd feel as comfortable in a gown of the same shade. Shoes have become a form of jewellery - a coda to an outfit, a bit of sparkle, some bling. Whether designer or high street, they're a frippery that isn't frowned upon.

It speaks volumes of our own evolution, of course, that footwear no longer needs to be functional. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but part of the fetishisation of footwear in the modern era (and even earlier) has been born of designers whose imaginations have been freed from the workaday necessaries of creating something that people can actually get around in. The phrase “taxi to table” has become common parlance when discussing certain examples of vertiginous heels - it's a description I used in 2008, when writing an article about the latest collection from Louboutin, the average height of which was 14cm (5½ inches) and which contained only one model of flat shoe.

That was also the season that Yves Saint Laurent's Stefano Pilati introduced his Tribute shoe, a concealed platform court with an unforgivingly spiky-thin heel 10cm high that entered the commercial canon of must-haves almost immediately. I have worn my own pair about five times - clearly, I don't take enough taxis to manage in them. The summer beforehand, however, I bought a pair of pink and gold Mary-Jane Miu Mius, decorated with golden curlicues and hand-painted flowers so as to look as much like a vintage teapot as possible, and I still wear them now. They're one of the comfiest oddities I've ever invested in.

Writing about shoes and all the attendant glamour they can bring to someone's life while I was encased in plaster and unable to walk was difficult in itself. I became acutely aware of how much a pair of shoes can change your physical appearance and the way you project yourself. There's the obvious way that heels make you walk - “Just like Jell-O on springs,” Jack Lemmon famously says in Some Like it Hot - and the way they lengthen calfs, push out the bum and bust and encourage you to drop your shoulders.

“Shoes transform your body language and attitude,” Louboutin once said. “They lift you physically and emotionally.”

And for a shoe addict such as myself, there was nothing like walking on crutches wearing one ratty old trainer to make me feel decidedly uncomfortable in my own skin. In fact, I spent most of my recovery time asking my physiotherapist when I'd be allowed to wear heels again: we took as our road map the six weeks or so from my restarting to bear weight on my left leg until I had to brave the fray at Fashion Week once again.

“I've got to be in heels by then,” I'd say, even as she pursed her lips and peered doubtfully at my Frankenstein scars and bloated foot. “I can't go to the shows in flat shoes or on crutches. Though I am willing to try heels with crutches, if that is a good compromise.” She looked horrified.

You've heard the phrase about walking in someone else's shoes - it's absolutely the case: there's nothing so alienating or confusing than feeling like you're walking about in the wrong pair. I hadn't worn a pair of trainers for almost 10 years before I had that accident; now I own three pairs - and fine, one has a wedge heel but it's still a sportier aesthetic than I'm used to.

Learning to walk again and writing Cult Shoes have become intrinsically linked in my mind. I still don't quite understand the power a good pair of shoes can have over someone - be it the wearer or the spectator - but it's something pretty strong if even someone on crutches can feel it. I became almost obsessed with getting back into my ordinary shoes, as if that would finally mean I was myself again. And I am just about, save the odd semi-wobble if I turn around too quickly (my balance isn't quite as good as it was) and the fact that my friends all look at me as if I'm a grenade about to go off if I go out wearing anything over four inches. Which I do. Frequently.

Once you join the cult, it's very difficult to leave, you see. - The Independent on Sunday

* 'Cult Shoes: Classic and Contemporary Designs' by Harriet Walker is published by Merrell

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