I’ve been thinking a lot about shoes lately – partly due to a heavy dose of window shopping. Footwear plays such a huge part in women’s wardrobes but how did shoes come to be so significant? Why do so many of us prefer painful heels to practical flats? Luckily, I was able to catch up with Rachelle Bergstein during her recent book signing at Neiman Marcus Paramus to ask her these questions and then some.
Rachelle’s book Women from the Ankle Down explores how shoes have fit in women’s lives over the past century. It’s a must-read for any fashion lover and the perfect companion for a day laying out at the beach.
SB: What is your go-to style for shoes?
R: Definitely boots! I’m a boot girl. I really like the mix of masculinity and femininity in a boot. I was a teenager in the 90’s, so I fell in love with Doc Martins pretty early and pretty young. So although I like more feminine shoes now, I definitely gravitate towards ones that reflect a certain edginess like these I’m wearing. They’re certainly feminine but they have a little edge to them and those are the shoes I’m the most attracted to.
SB: Are there any shoe trends you’re excited about for this summer?
R: I’m really excited to see all the crazy platforms that are back. I definitely like that style and you know you can get great height with a platform without necessarily having the balancing act of a six-inch heel. I live in New York, so walking is a concern – I don’t have a car so it’s pretty crucial that I can get around in the shoes that I’m wearing and feel powerful in them.
SB: Would you say that heels make you feel more powerful than flats?
R: In a really different way, I think heels do make me feel powerful because I feel very tall and formidable whereas flats make me feel really energized – like my body can do anything. That is really silly, but
I was wearing a pair of loafers to work the other day and I thought, “I’m in such a great mood! I can go as fast as I want! [laughs]”
SB: Speaking of heels vs. flats, some women seem to despise flats. Yet they’re easier to walk in and they’re often made by the same designers that make some of the most coveted heels. Why do you think that is?
R: I think that practicality is never really glamourous, is it? You know I compare it to…for me I’ve been a longtime glasses wearer since I was a little kid. As much as I can love a pair of glasses, I never feel as glamourous as when I’m wearing my contacts. I think shoes are the same. I think very few women feel fabulous in flats, although physically you’re right. It’s nice to be able to move and not have to worry about balancing in the same way. But I think that it’s just the aspect of them being a little more special.
SB: In your opinion, what is the most culturally significant pair of shoes – fictional or non-fictional?
R: Dorothy’s ruby slippers are such a touchstone for so many girls since that movie has come out. In fact, I met a lot of women who had a red shoe thing. I think Dorothy’s ruby slippers is one of those quintessential fairytale touchstones that teach girls from a very young age, like Cinderella’s shoes, that shoes can transform you. They can help you achieve things and in Dorothy’s case, the shoes actually helped her get in touch with her inner needs and desires and helped her accomplish what she wanted most, which was to go home. That is a really powerful story to learn from such a young age. That, compounded with Cinderella, helps girls to grow up thinking that shoes are a little magical.
SB: What do you think makes an “it” shoe? Alexander McQueen’s armadillo shoe was huge but it wasn’t particularly sexy and it was notorious for being difficult to walk in. What do you think made that shoe resonate with so many people? In general what makes the “it” shoe of the moment special?
R: Well, that is really interesting because I think architecturally it had never been done before. First of all, the heel was about nine or ten inches high and second, the aesthetic of the shoe was so unique. It really doesn’t have any historical basis. I guess you could say it has a fetishistic element but that shoe was very much of the moment. It came about at a time when economically the country was suffering a bit and it was just so over the top. It was very aggressive, which was the style of shoes at that moment. We started to see a lot of spikes and grommets and aggressive shoes on the runway. It was the extreme version of that and then it was worn by Lady Gaga, who is really influential. I do talk in the book about the way that celebrities impact what we as average women want. I think that we see a certain shoe on a woman that we for what ever reason as a culture aspire towards and then we think “Oh, well maybe if I dress like that – well, not dress like Lady Gaga, but wear something that’s derivative of that – I might be able to capture a little bit of that essence.”
SB: In New York and New Jersey, UGGs are very popular and they’re well…ugly. They’re also very expensive. So how does that shoe fit in to shoe culture? It’s not what you typically envision when you imagine someone dropping $300 on a pair of shoes.
R: They’re really comfortable and I think that’s part of it. When I was in college I had a housemate who was from Toronto and he wore UGGs during the winter, just because they were good winter boots. That was before they exploded onto the scene. And that was also celebrity driven. I believe it was Kate Hudson who was photographed in them while wearing a mini skirt and all of a sudden people went fanatic about them. Now I think they are a comfort shoe. They are embraced by college-age girls as like the opposite of the pump. They’re what you wear in the morning as you’re scuffling in your sunglasses to breakfast. You know I still think that is a comfort-driven trend and, like anything in fashion, there is an “it” shoe. Crocs are more difficult to explain for me [laughs]. Again, I think they must just be really comfortable and you know a shoe like that wouldn’t gain so much ground if it didn’t feel great on your feet.
SB: What inspired you to write the book?
I’ve been interested in the way in which fashion reflects the context from which it comes from. But the story of how this book came about is really funny and specific.
I worked in publishing for the past eight years and I was on my way to a book party with an agent who I work for and her husband who’s a writer. At the time he was working on a book on the sun, which he just turned into his editor and which was 800 pages long. His editor said great but you really need to cut this down. It’s going to be tough to sell a book this long. On the train I asked him how it was going and he said, “Every time I take out 1000 words, I put 500 back in.” And I said completely glibly, “It’s okay – every time I throw out a pair of shoes, I buy two to replace them.” His eyes lit up and he said. “I don’t think anyone has ever written a commodity history on shoes,” and we were talking about it the rest of the way to the book party and the next time I had a chance, I went the library just to see if there was anything, and there was! I decided to pursue it and I wrote the book proposal.
SB: While you were conducting research for the book, did you come across anything that was really surprising that you just couldn’t believe?
R: Yes! I learned that in the 40’s, during World War II, shoes were rationed. That was probably one of my favorite little research moments. There were all of these articles that I stumbled on that talked about how shoes were the first clothing items to be rationed. During the war, things like sugar and dairy had been rationed but because things like steel and leather were allocated to the army, we just didn’t have the resources to be indulging people’s shoe habits. They announced the ration the day before it went into effect because they didn’t want people to hoard. People were entitled to three pairs of leather shoes per year, which doesn’t sound terrible. But I think the idea that they couldn’t access those kind of shoes when they wanted was kind of tough on the morale.
In fact, frivolous shoes weren’t made during that time. There were all of these laws surrounding what shoe companies could manufacture. So actually certain colors couldn’t be made, certain flourishes couldn’t be made – they really disappeared from the marketplace.