With platform soles, you can't go a mile in anyone's shoes

ALICE STEINBACH

November 29, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

As part of an ongoing program to expand my personal horizons, I tried on the latest fad in women's shoes: high-heeled pumps with an inch-high platform sole.

"They make you look taller," the saleswoman said helpfully, as I tottered toward the mirror, grasping onto the backs of chairs to prevent myself from keeling over head-first.

Taller? Taller? Is that the image I'm projecting? Is that why I see reflected in the mirror two young boys doubled up in laughter at the sight of me?

You want an image? Here's an image: Do the words "Bride of Frankenstein" suggest anything to you?

Or in a more contemporary mode, does the image of Jodie Foster as a hooker in "Taxi Driver" ring a bell? Not a pretty picture, is it -- the thought of Jodie stumbling down the street in towering platforms with sheer stockings and miniskirts?

But getting back to me, some questions about the purchase of such shoes race through my mind:

How will I walk? Can I drive a car? What about escalators? Will short men still want to date me?

It also occurs to me that should I buy these pumps, the phrase "Walk a mile in my shoes" will take on a new meaning.

At this point, the saleswoman, sensing my hesitation, decides to sweeten the deal: "They also come in a leopard print," she says.

It would be easy, of course, to dismiss such lunacy as merely the ravings of a mad shoe designer, but, as always, I prefer to take a scholarly approach to the subject.

The history of women's shoes, I contend, is the history of women. To go one step farther, the evolution of women's shoes is one of fashion's most clear-cut examples of the ingenious ways devised by men to slow women down.

To fully understand the origins of the contemporary platform shoe, we must go back to Venice in the early 16th century, to a shoe called the "chopine."

For a description of this shoe and what happened to women who wore it, I offer this passage from a fascinating book titled "Shoes -- Fashion and Fantasy":

"Early sixteenth-century Venice produced the most extreme shoe style ever seen, a style that was eagerly taken up by the more adventurous of the city's women. The chopine, a shoe on an inordinately high platform sole, was as ungainly as it was uncomfortable. . . . The chopine severely limited mobility and forced the wearer to adopt a somewhat comical way of walking."

Comical but also dangerous: These "walking maypoles," as one 17th-century writer described women wearing chopines, must be "assisted and supported either by men or women, when they walk abroad, to the end they might not fall."

Indeed, I am told, although not by a very reliable source, that the contemporary expression -- "to bust your chops" -- can be traced directly back to chopine-falling.

Despite the dangers inherent in wearing such a shoe, the chopine rapidly spread across Europe from Venice. Why? Men were said to desire women who wore chopines.

However, a social critic of that period suggested another reason for the shoe's popularity. In his view the "chopine had been invented by jealous Italian husbands who hoped that the cumbersome movement it entailed would make illicit liaisons difficult."

Would it be too much of a leap here to suggest the chopine was the European equivalent of the Chinese custom of foot binding? Foot binding -- which produced adult women with 4-inch feet -- made it kind of difficult to walk, much less pursue a career.

And would it be even more of a leap to suggest that we have the modern-day equivalent of the chopine and foot binding in today's stiletto-heeled, pointed-toe shoe? Admired by men and still favored by many women -- including beauty contestants in the swimsuit competition -- it's a shoe that bears no resemblance to the shape of a human foot.

It's also the kind of footwear that slows women down. Case in point: Recently, on television, I saw a woman reporter vainly chasing after a jogging Bill Clinton. When the camera panned down to her feet, it revealed the reporter gamely running in shoes with 4-inch heels.

Question: How would Sam Donaldson perform if forced to chase down Bob Dole while wearing high-heeled pumps?

By the way, did I mention I passed up the leopard-print platform shoes? Went right down the street to a store where they sell sensible shoes and bought a pair of flat-heeled shoes with arch supports. In silver leather. The saleswoman said silver leather made me look thinner.

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