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
They are my softest ever, leather peep-toe sandals
and as the world swings slowly on,
it whistles softly at their splendour,
in the rightness of all things
Trinket Box Ballerina
How can she stand it,
Beneath her cloud skirt,
one foot aloft,
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
their ‘kick’ pleat a joke
growing thinner as I pedalled.
Then it came down to kaftans
bike shorts, Dockers
They let me out
Now I stand on my own
six inch high
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.