What Is It With Women and Shoes? Rachelle Bergstein’s Women from the Ankle Down
Vassar alum Rachelle Bergstein works among the literati in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Fresh Yarn, The Awl, Slice magazine, and The Dirty Durty Diary. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, her cat, and her shoes. This is her first book.
When I started researching my book, Women From the Ankle Down, back in 2008, I attended a “shoe party” hosted at a fantastic but prohibitively expensive store that soon became a casualty of the recession. The invitation was straightforward: Arrive in a pair of your most fabulous shoes and meet like-minded women, eat cheese cubes, and drink free champagne. I came from Brooklyn, changing from ballet flats into open-toed leopard print pumps after I walked from the subway in Soho.
I didn’t know what to expect, but felt myself quickly pulled into retail heaven. The store was gorgeous: the kind of boutique that telegraphed luxury via its soft white lighting, the mermaid-tail-of-a-staircase.
Approaching a cluster of twenty-something ladies, I asked: “What brings you here tonight?” The girls were hesitant.
I asked if they were really into shoes.
They looked at each other, and suddenly I felt like I’d crashed a party full of cheerleaders and asked why they were all carrying pom-poms. “I wouldn’t say really into…” one of them finally answered.
Okay. I kept moving. As I posed the same question to different groups of girls, I noticed a pattern: no one, not one of the girls at a shoe party wanted to admit that they were gaga for footwear. The night hit a new level of strangeness when I spotted a pair of young women, standing by the fruit and cheese spread, surveying the modest crowd. I asked what brought them out.
The girl in pink smiled sheepishly. “Just thought it would be fun,” she shrugged.
Good enough. I asked her a few more softball questions then went in for the sting: “Are you really into shoes?”
She smiled nicely again. Did she blush? “I mean, I like shoes,” she said.
“Do you own a lot?”
“Not more than I have room for” (an answer I’d recall many months later, when I overheard someone justify their smoking by arguing that they never lit up first thing in the morning).
She estimated that she had roughly 100 pairs of shoes in her New York City apartment, yet maintained that her interest was casual. We chatted some more and then her friend, who had been silent, suddenly perked up. “But your e-mail address – ”
I shifted focus. “Yes?”
“Her e-mail address,” her friend said, starting to giggle, “is ShoeObsessed@blank.com.”
We all laughed and then I moved on. But I wondered: Why would someone who showed up at a shoe party full of strangers, who chose to self-identify as “shoe obsessed” on the Internet, be unwilling to say it out loud? It seemed almost like walking into a bar where everybody knows your name and then insisting, martini in hand, that you only sort of like to drink.
I find myself wanting to use metaphors of vice to describe shoes, because that’s how women who love them are made to feel: like they’re superficial, self-indulgent. But I was convinced there was more to the story, that the connection between women and shoes had some kind of historical and social grounding. I was determined to understand it.
Feeling a little shoe-obsessed yourself? Indulge your obsession by checking out Women from the Ankle Down on Facebook.