Shoes, the female guilt trip
According to a survey carried out by a glossy magazine, Carrie Bradshaw
had nothing on middle-aged British women. The average woman over 40 has
19 pairs of shoes (which seems quite modest to me), but 5% have more
than 100 pairs (much more like it). A third of the women questioned
felt terrible guilt about the shoes and admitted to lying to boyfriends
and husbands about the purchases. This is despite the fact that they
earned their own money, to spend as they wish.
That guilt, I think,
is at the crux of women’s relationship with shoes, or indeed of their
relationship with non-essential shopping generally: one part pleasure,
one part guilt; one part pride, one part shame; one part exhilaration,
one part remorse. After all, an addiction to shoe shopping — or to
fashiony shopping of any kind — marks one out as shallow and overly
concerned with the appearance of our extremities, when really we should
be coming up with a master plan to eradicate world poverty, solve
global conflict and find a cure for Aids. Women, eh? Such silly
However, it stands to reason that if I earn X and
wake up one morning thinking I could do with some cherry-red
patent-leather wedges (as I did only last week, funnily enough), then I
am free to buy them forthwith. My wedges harm nobody, they fill my
heart with gladness, and miraculously enough they don’t turn my brain
to porridge: I can still function, still work, still find the time to
worry about the Middle East.
So why the guilt? Why the shoving
to the back of the wardrobe, the disingenuous “What, these old
things?”, the swift dumping of the tell-tale receipt? Through years of
intense self-training, I am now guiltless when it comes to shopping of
any kind, and yet I understand other women’s widespread feelings of
having somehow transgressed when they buy a new, and not strictly
necessary, pair of heels. What saddens me about it is that the guilt
isn’t about shoes, but about having the temerity to have fantasies,
The bored, overweight, weary housewife who
blows half a week’s earnings on shoes that she will never wear —
marabou-trimmed mules, say, with skyscraper heels — isn’t so much
buying footwear as allowing herself to dream of an alternative life,
one in which she is a languorous beauty, rouged and perfumed, lounging
about in a silk babydoll, waiting in her boudoir for something terribly
exciting to happen.
is far removed from any kind of childish “dressing up” — it’s about
honouring a part of herself that she knows exists and that she won’t
allow circumstances to kill off.
The mild, crushed-seeming
woman who works in Accounts and wears bobbly cardigans, and who’s been
saving for weeks to buy thigh boots that do up with ribbons doesn’t
lead a secret life, but wishes she did. Her husband will be cross with
her for buying “ridiculous” footwear that he knows she’ll keep in a box
in the wardrobe, but that’s not the point.
The point is, she is
being imaginative, acknowledging the possibility of otherness and being
true to a part of herself that society (to say nothing of her husband
and children) would probably howl with laughter at. I say good for her
and good for her mental health. Let her buy all the shoes she wants —
in fact, encourage her.
All shoes are about self-definition.
Because they are democratic, unlike clothes — you’re rarely too fat or
too poor for a really fabulous pair since fabulous shoes don’t have to
cost the earth — they have become a fixation for some women, a kind of
shorthand for What Might Have Been. (The rise and rise of designer
handbags is about this too; ditto scent, the sale of which bankrolls
the big fashion houses.)
Shoes, I would go as far as saying,
are a form of therapy and an efficient one at that. They can say
anything you want them to say, in public — “I may be wearing a suit,
but I’m a minx really”, “I am capable and efficient”, “I am playful”,
“I can run fast” — whatever. Or they can whisper to you in private and
make you feel the world is full of possibilities. No wonder we’re
addicted to them.
The idea of fashion as therapy has been
embraced fully and quite boldly by Trinny and Susannah since their not
entirely successful departure from the BBC. Their new ITV show, Trinny
and Susannah Undress, has suffered from comparisons with their former
programme, What Not to Wear, because the new format concerns not only
fashion but also, in equal measure, relationships — tired, faltering
ones that need rejuvenation.
It’s a clever idea, because it
cuts to the chase of what clothes and fashion are all about —
self-esteem, the face you choose to present to the world, ambition,
fantasy, imagination, desire and so on. It doesn’t always work on
screen, partly because T&S’s somewhat abrasive, gung-ho style can
sit awkwardly with the delicate business of rekindling affections, but
it’s a laudable attempt all the same.
The fact that viewing
figures aren’t as stratospheric as expected is because we like our
escapism to be escapist, not to remind us of our failings. A programme
like Wife Swap works brilliantly because we’re — I hope — too busy
thanking God that we’re not like the people on display to find
parallels with our own lives. T&S Undress, in contrast, makes over
people whose troubles are more or less universal, and may be
uncomfortably close to home.
But it’s all good. I love reality
television, T&S included, because it’s as valid a form of therapy
as any other, whether you’re talking Alpha course, antidepressants,
analysis, or going away for a holiday with your girlfriends to get away
from it all. Anything that involves distance and reassessment — a kind
of unhooking from everyday life and all its concerns — has got to be a
positive and healthy thing.
Which brings us neatly back to
shoes and their therapeutic role. Given that, I think we’re probably
all agreed, we exist in a world that is obsessed with the exterior —
obsessed to a, well, obsessive degree, because the interior may not be
in terribly good nick. It would be easy to misread women’s love of
shoes as yet another manifestation of a semi-delusional (“Angelina
Jolie and I wear the same shoes!”), slightly desperate refusal to
engage with the real world.
That would be wrong. They’re not a manifestation of denial, they’re a manifestation of hope. And who would begrudge us that?