Red peep-toes and Italian heels

No shoes of mine were ever kept when I was a child, neither for sentimental reasons nor to be handed on. I had no siblings.  My shoes were bought at John Lewis, in Cambridge, where my father sold beds and we got a discount. Getting the right fit involved putting my feet in an X-ray machine.  The shoes were always Start-rite: I got sandals, with pale, thick rubber soles, a pattern of tiny squares cut out at the front, a T-bar fastening.  Always brown.  I don’t remember lace-ups, at least no particular pair, but I’m sure I had them.  What I wanted were red shoes, with a peep-toe, along with an angora bolero and a sticky-out skirt that rustled.  These were the sought-after clothes among the top infants in the 1950s.  My mother believed in buying things that were sensible and would last.  She made as many clothes as she could and did a good job.  Skirts and sleeves were always cut long, and then tucked to allow for growth.

Eventually I got a pair of red peep-toe sandals for a birthday present – the poem below says it all.  I might have been about 9 or 10 and I remember a successor to these sandals, a deeper red with a tiny wedge heel.  But the soft folds of the first pair were best.

Slip-ons were the other sought-after shoe – and these came later, in junior school, with the worry that they’d slip off, so a pair of heel grips were often stuck in the back. I got a brown pair with a folded back, slashed vamp.  I wore them the day I finally swam 14 yards across the pool, and the day I passed the 11+.  They became my lucky shoes.  The desire for sought-after but forbidden shoes just went on.  What I got was always a compromise, not quite what I wanted.  White stilettos were the thing during my early teens. Winkle pickers. After a first pair of kitten heel shoes in brown textured leather – a real compromise, I did get pale high-heeled shoes, plus a pink duster coat to go with them.  What I lacked were the paper nylon, sugar-stiffened petticoats that puffed out everyone else’s skirts – some girls even had a wire hoop at the petticoat hem. All this was part of feeling that everyone else was far more grown up and sophisticated than I was. Wearing a bra, having periods, having a boyfriend as well as lots of girlfriends, these were the longed for goals that never seemed to come, not for ages.

What shoes stand out after that?  I got some brown, square-toed shoes, with punch holes and a bar strap, in Germany, on a visit to a penfriend.  They were foreign and special.  I can’t remember many late teens shoes.  But I can remember leaving art school before the first year had ended and getting a job.  I bought some expensive brown shoes, soft leather with a small square heel, open sides, and a thin ankle strap. I only earned £7 a week and paid £2.50 rent, £2 for food.  But the shoes were wonderful and it’s a style I would still wear happily.  I remember T-bar patent leather crocodile shoes, black and flat – they went with shiny PVC macs and the ‘60s.

It’s all much more blurred after that.  I got married at 21 and once we’d had children money was really tight.  But I did wear Anello and Davide dance shoes – a kind of Mary Jane but with a small heel and a slim strap across the instep. Very plain and elegant, comfortable and easy to walk in. I don’t know how I found out about them – maybe someone else wore them and I got the name. We had to buy them at the Anello and Davide shop in London and my partner would bring them back when he went down for work meetings. They seemed special.  I remember ‘70s shoes with a platform sole, in maroon.  I also remember canvas sandals with a wedge heel and cross over strap on the instep, so comfortable I bought two pairs, in black and navy.

Where did all this take me?  Strappy shoes with heels have always attracted me.  Often I can’t get very far in them and they sit unworn and eventually go to the charity shop.  I started running in early ‘80s, in plimsolls.  But soon running shoe technology took off, we spent time in Oregon where running ruled, and discovered the latest ultra light-weight cushioned running shoes.  They seemed miraculous, weighing nothing in the hand. Among my non-running shoes, two pairs stand out from the ‘80s.  White trainer boots that laced up above the ankle.  Very comfortable, made me feel very cool. Maybe a form of early Converse. People who later became friends said that these had first given the game away, told them there was more to me than met the eye.  The same with some Docker boots – Lady Dockers they were called – but they still looked quite hard.  I wore them with relatively ‘straight’ flowery, drapey skirts and tops when I began teaching, commuting from Sheffield to Teesside University.  Again, people said the Dockers had suggested that all was not what it seemed with me.

I wore shoes less and less in the next 20 years.  Sandals and boots became a mainstay.  I’d still buy strappy, high-heeled shoes but working in academia made them less of a fit with how I wanted to look. When I went to France, where older women seem to be allowed more lee-way in how they dress, don’t have to have youthful bodies to be allowed to be glamorous, I loved to go out in strappy, high-heeled shoes, often in small towns and out of the way places.  Getting dressed up and going out and about was happening around me, and I could do the same.

Very comfortable sandals that don’t look too much like school sandals have come into their own for me and I like travelling with just one pair (or, in winter, one pair of boots).  They go with leaving behind the burden of everyday stuff, being mobile, slipping away from everyday demands.  I went to Sydney for a month in the late ‘90s and took only one pair of ‘shoes’ – black chunky sandals.  When I go cycle-touring in France for several weeks each summer I just take a pair of black Ecco sandals – they work on the bike and I like them with the clothes I wear to go out in at night as well.

The end of the story is taking severance from Sheffield University.  I knew I would miss getting dressed up, putting an outfit together, going in to teach, to appear and to perform. The shoes have been the biggest loss. Cycling into the university, but just for research meetings, means sticking to one pair. Before, I would wear cycling shoes and then change into something potentially interesting for a day’s work.  Now my shoes just sit, largely unworn.  And along with losing the opportunity to ‘dress up’ in shoes I like, my feet have become sensitive to friction between my skin and the shoe.  Stitching inside the shoe is a no-no.  An uncushioned sole is a no-no. High heels would never have done for very long, but now they only work if I’m barely standing at all.  I feel angry that my feet and the shoes that are available have let me down.  I gave lots away recently; the occasions where I might wear them briefly never seemed to happen.  When I go out at night I often walk to the venue and I wouldn’t change into different shoes when I got there, just to stick my feet under a restaurant table, for example.  It only works if I get the outfit together and can spend the whole evening in it.

What I hate most is working at home and wearing slippers.  I enjoy putting clothes together, whether I’m going out or not, it’s like anything else creative.  But we’ve got cream carpets and don’t wear outside shoes upstairs.  So if I put slippers on when I’ve got dressed, the look is wrecked.  To get round this I’ve cleaned up the soles of a couple of pairs of shoes and boots and keep them for wearing in the house.

Other people’s shoes?

When my partner and I were first married, hard up, with small children, he bought Hush Puppies which were guaranteed to last 6 months without needing a repair.  He wore out one pair within that time, mainly through playing football in the street with his brothers.  He got a replacement pair and wore these out in the same way and took them back.  The third time he went back, the manager in Freeman, Hardy and Willis replaced them with a more expensive make, with no guarantee, and told him not to come back.  Later he took to wearing clogs, after we’d spent time in Stockholm.  They lasted better but earned him the nickname Clog, which our son still calls him.

Joanna, our daughter, had first shoes (size 3) in navy with a kind of triangular T bar.  They were so small on her fat feet that they were almost square.  She was about 18 months old. We drove from Durham to Wales, with my father, for a wedding. When we got there one of her shoes was missing. It must have fallen out of the car on a stop. It felt like a big loss and I bought her another pair, just the same, to replace them.

The first two poems below were written before the project was ever conceived.  Never thought of myself as a ‘shoe person’ but they must have been important to me – another version of my shoe history!


June, and the daylight fuzz
breaks my long childish sleep, stirs my limbs
beneath a green bedspread
where I nudge a soft thud from a boxed surprise
that I have already selected.  Into the tissue
I scramble for the pair that were not prescribed
by Clarks, that lack brown, punched leather
to imprison my toes. That are without
beige soles, forged from boiled down rubber.
Into my hands comes a gentle scrunching
of crossover toe-straps, swagging out sideways
from their clever connection.
They are red, red,
peep-toe. Without purpose, goal
or function.
They are my softest ever, leather peep-toe sandals
and as the world swings slowly on,
it whistles softly at their splendour,
easier now
in the rightness of all things

Trinket Box Ballerina

How can she stand it,
Stork Woman?
Beneath her cloud skirt,
one foot aloft,
one grounded
in trinket trays
and Christmas tree tops.
Annually, The Girls Book of Ballet,
Belle of the Ballet and Ballet Shoes
were rifled through for her special knack,
while mum layered net and canvas
for her plum who would be fairy.
Sugared, hooped petticoats
made other girls’ gingham skirts
bell into flower.
Even three deep,
my limp slips
failed to bloom.
I gave up on elevation after that.
Promise of the high life
came in pencil skirts
that locked my black-stockinged knees
across eight bike-ride miles
to school
and back,
their ‘kick’ pleat a joke
growing thinner as I pedalled.
Then it came down to kaftans
and tracksuits,
bike shorts, Dockers
and culottes.
They let me out
and about.
Now I stand on my own
black strap,
sling back,
six inch high
Italian heels.
Stork Woman,
perfectly balanced.

Putting away my shoes

Rubber, leather, leopard-patched,
you are paired below stairs, my hall cupboard loves,
empty and waiting, tiny night-stuffed caves,
confined to your racks
behind a door that stops all light,
permits the crawl of dust upwards from the cellar,
offers snails the right to roam
unfathomed hours, leaves you with
bright pavements recollected, tarmac dreams,
the aftertaste of marble, concrete, steel.
Rubber, leather, leopard-patched,
you rat tat no more into the Tube, nor quicken
at the stiff ascent to work. Here in the dark
you cradle my absence, the stilled friction
of my feet, my toes, once flexed for tomorrow,
grown slack in slippers, shod for nothing
but the circular track from one blank dawn
to another’s wakening mirror face,
just the rustle, scrape and slide
of a border crossing.
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Red Shoe Stories

by Kay Gill

My major shoe story starts back in 2009 when I was a freshly qualified Personal Performance Coach and NLP Practitioner.

During my training it was drummed into us that we must find a niche for our coaching businesses.  For me this was proving difficult.  I couldn’t get past the fact that the coaching process can and does work for almost any type of challenge faced by almost everyone!

Eventually I decided my passion lies with helping women grow in Self Confidence and build their Self Belief.  But what to call my business?

After much brainstorming, I was still coming up short until one day when I met a friend for lunch.

Before we met I had been shopping at my favourite shoe shop, Kurt Keiger.  I wanted to replace a pair of fab black shoes which I’d finally worn out.  But, fortunately for me, the store only had them in a bright poppy-red patent leather!

When I saw them I could feel the angel and the devil sitting on my shoulders ‘You can’t take the red ones…when would you wear them… they won’t go with anything…’ said the angel (or was it my Mother?)  ‘WOW, the Red Shoes are sooo exciting and gorgeous – you must have them’ said the little Devil in me!  She won – I bought the pair!

When I later showed my new purchase off to my friend over lunch the seeds were sown for my company ‘Red Shoes Coaching

‘I’ve always wanted a pair of red shoes’ my friend lamented  ‘but I’ve never dared, I just don’t have the confidence to carry them off!’ she said.  I was amazed by this.  But, as she had been one of my pro bono clients when I was training, I put my coaching hat on and asked her to simply imagine putting on her perfect pair of red shoes on.  As she did so her whole physiology changed.   She sat up tall, proud and confident, her words were excited and passionate and the stress and strain showing on her face just moments ago fell away.

Simply by changing her thoughts and in turn, her feelings, she instantly looked younger, more alive, happier and excited!  A few months later she told me that after this experience she immediately went out and bought her very first pair of red shoes and now, a few short years later, at the age of 54 she is a confident, vivacious,  qualified Zumba instructor!

Since that day I’ve asked many women what red shoes mean to them.   Almost without exception I get the same response – empowerment, confidence, excitement, vitality, a ‘can do’ attitude.

Almost every one of them seems to have their very own Red Shoe story from the cancer sufferer who, mid way through her unpleasant divorce decided to treat herself and her self esteem to a pair of red Bandolino pumps to another who, now in her sixties still remembers waking up at the age of three to find a pair of bright red tap shoes in her Christmas stocking.

I think though my story and business can be summed up by a post on my facebook page a few months ago.   It simply read…

‘I need to present in front of about 80 people today, so I am wearing my red shoes :-))’


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My Shoe Story

Just over a year ago I received an email telling me about a doctoral research position on a project about shoes. To many this might at first seem like an odd topic, but not to me – and perhaps not to you if you are reading this blog. The reason for my interest was not because I owned loads of shoes – I have about twenty pairs (including old shoes, slippers and wellies), and most of my shoes are probably fairly uninteresting – I was, however, immediately reminded of one particular pair of trainers that I wore when I went travelling in 2002.

After a short and disenchanting career in fashion design I decided to abandon my life in London and booked a round-the-world ticket on a whim after work one day. Once committed, I handed in my notice and started to plan my journey. Clothing seemed to be an important consideration in the planning process; everything needed to be versatile so that I could travel as light as possible. I chose to take one pair of trainers, one pair of flip-flops and some smart black pumps (for work and socialising). The trainers were probably not all that practical: they were cream leather Puma trainers with a pinky-mauve flash on the side. Although the colour was impractical, the shape was flattering, they were comfortable, and I’d had lots of compliments about them. Puma was a recognisable, popular and generally respected brand, which seemed to assure my acceptance in many of the social situations I encountered along the way. The trainers helped me to feel confident when, for the majority of the time, I felt disorientated and unsure of myself. I wore the trainers almost all the time and together we experienced adventures in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – a life-defining and transforming year for me.

When the shoes finally wore out, I sadly disposed of them but I felt an urge to first immortalise them on paper. I realised, through the process of drawing, that after a year of wear they had developed creases, wrinkles and shapes that I knew were unique to me and my journey. I was intrigued by how a mass-produced artefact – owned by hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people – could become so individual and significant to me. Shoes, unlike many other items of clothing, assume the shape of the wearer and it was as though my shoes had become me; but I had also become my shoes  – disposing of my trainers was like losing a part of myself.

It is this connection, now, that inspires me in my role as one quarter of the research team of this substantial body of work. When the team first got together we each wrote about our own personal shoe stories. This caused me to realise that all the shoes I remember, dating back to my early childhood, had a particular connection to a transitional time in my life – especially from childhood to adolescence, and on into adulthood. So how do the shoes we wear affect the person we are, the person we want to be and the person we become? Perhaps you have your own stories that can help us to understand the connections between footwear and identity, transition and transformation – if so we’d love to hear them…



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‘Sole Sisters’ Article in Local Sheffield Newspaper

Members of the research team were interviewed and photographed by reporters from The Star, Sheffield’s daily newspaper.

Click here to read the full article.

(Photograph courtesy of Steven Parkin)

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Review: ‘Shoes’ the Musical

Sadler’s Wells at the Peacock Theatre                                       8th February – 3rd April, 2011

After a short stint in the West End during the latter part of 2010, the Sadler’s Wells production of Shoes, the musical, has returned to the Peacock Theatre until April this year. Coincidentally the show made its original debut at the same time as we embarked upon our three year research project, and the current extended run at the Peacock Theatre in conjunction with a regularly packed auditorium provides further acknowledgement that footwear holds a special place in the imagination of the general public.

Writer and director Richard Thomas, perhaps best known for his controversial production of Jerry Springer: the Opera (written with comedian Stewart Lee), started research for the show by wandering the streets with a flip-cam, recording people’s shoe memories. The stories convinced him that a subject so rich, evocative and universal would guarantee West End success: “Everybody, everywhere has to choose a shoe. There is no escape.”

The fact that much of the inspiration for the show came from actual experience is both reassuring and provides and element of integrity, however it is clear that the stories that did make it as far as the final production did so on the merit of their sensational and entertaining themes. The theatre claims the production to be a celebration of “one of the greatest passions of the modern age”, and aims to enable everyone to relate to it in their own way. While I doubt the show will appeal to everyone’s experiences of shoes, some interesting themes do emerge and I will take this opportunity to raise some of these issues.

The show begins with a video projection, only a few minutes in length, representing the history of shoes – all of which are disembodied and appear to dance with a life of their own. This introduction culminates with a revolutionary declaration that announces the beginning of the twentieth century: “it’s your choice, now anything goes”. While the popular assumption that twentieth century consumer culture provided a wealth of freedom and choice is a contentious issue that deserves independent discussion, it is the disembodied shoes in this introduction that are of particular interest. The shoe dancing on its own appears with frequency throughout the show in many different guises. Strangely, for a production that has chosen dance as it’s medium it rarely focuses on the way the shoe makes one move or perform, opting instead to dance about shoes rather than to use shoes to dance. The few exceptions show themselves in surreal interludes, during which a spotlighted dancer proceeds to move from one side of the stage to the other in a manner seemingly dictated by the shoe. Cowboy boots, flippers, waders, skis and clown shoes provide often hilarious movements with which I felt I could identify and almost experience through the dancer. The frequent appearance of the disembodied shoe, however, dancing on its own, seems to reflect a modern tendency to objectify the shoe, seeing it as a representation or symbol as opposed to something that allows us to physically interact with the world in a particular way.

The disembodied shoe does however reflect another common theme – that of the fairy tale, magic and enchantment. The Hans Christian Anderson story the Red Shoes seemed to hold a contemporary relevance while watching a young man dressed in a red Adidas tracksuit don a pair of trainers by the same brand which appear to imbue him with the capacity to perform an amazing break-dance routine. Continually it seems that the shoes lead him, rather than vice versa, and his addiction and inability to part with the shoes mirrors the original fairy tale. The allusion to the almost magical potential of footwear to transform the wearer appears continually throughout the production, however dis-enchantment is also acknowledged in a postscript to the Cinderella story in which an unhappy and heavily pregnant young lady with equally unhappy partner comically warn against the dangers of being “seduced by a crystal slipper”.

The enchanted shoe leads to notions of the shoe as an object of worship. This is perfectly epitomised when a chorus of nuns religiously chant names such as Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Vivienne Westwood. An amusing sketch in which a Birkenstock-wearing Christ character herds a flock of Australian sheepskin Uggboots continues the religious metaphor. Another performance, situated in the shoe shop, features several female dancers celebrating the religious ritual that is shoe shopping. Their “temple of retail” referring to Emile Zola’s “cathedral of consumption” – the early department store – suggests a wealth of comparisons between consumer culture and religion. The presence of the single suited male at the periphery of the stage appears to symbolise the contrasting rational voice of reason when he asks, why not buy a cheaper pair that look the same?

The stories can be seen to acknowledge heterosexual, homosexual and indeed asexual experiences of shoes – many of the dancers are dressed androgynously with the emphasis very much on the shoe. However there does seem to be a bias in which most of the stories seem to be aimed around female experience. Many of the stories appear to perpetuate stereotypical views and the men that actually feature in the storylines, for example Imelda Marcos’ bodyguards and the aforementioned ‘husband’ in the shoe shop, tend to perpetuate the notion that men exhibit rational behaviour and women, irrational – a highly problematic assumption.

Despite very mixed press reviews, there is no doubt that Shoes has reignited debates around a highly charged element of modern mass consumer culture. The show itself is light-hearted and sensational in nature and has certainly fallen short of the promised insight into the fascination with footwear. The popularity of the show with both men and women, however, seems to suggest that many are eager to explore this fascination – opening the way for many other, perhaps more insightful, types of exploration.

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