I blame it all on Barbie. She was our first real arch enemy. As one of the first of a generation of women who grew up stuffing the doll's tiny perfect feet into those blasted plastic high heels, I think some of us are still trying to cram our middle-aged, very "unperfect" feet into impossible shoes.
And yes, if we were still stuck in a dream house serving Ken all day, there would be no need to kick off our heels and live a little … but then many of us baby boomers grew up in an era when our mothers – a la June Cleaver – scooted around the grocery store in stilettos, shirtwaist dresses and strings of pearls snapping up the latest flavor of Jell-O to liven up the weekly marshmallow salads.
As a fashion writer for 25 years, I've delved into the history of the high heel a time or two myself, trying to determine just what it is that makes some of us still so intent on teetering and tottering on 5-inch heels enduring hours and hours of pain. And surprise, surprise, it has something to do with sex. Of course.
The word stiletto actually comes from the Latin word stylus, meaning "slender dagger." I've always said that those five-inch heels would come in handy if you had to protect yourself in an extreme emergency. But back to the history of stilettos: Rumor has it that Catherine de Medici strolled into the French court in 1533 in high heels, impressing everyone with her swaying swagger including her husband King Henry II … and we all know the reputation those Henrys all had.
Turns out another Frenchman, Roger Vivier designed a pointy, high heel for fashion designer Christian Dior in 1955, and the rest is dangerous history. The "killer" stiletto, as fashion trendsetters call them today, is still unfortunately alive and well, thrilling alpha-females everywhere. The stiletto, my dear friends, is not teetering on the brink of extinction anytime soon. But that doesn't mean you have to trip the lights fantastic right into the podiatrist's office, either.
We've all had our share of "learning" experiences when it comes to shoes. And yes, I scuttled through the 70s in Candies … those high-heeled wooden atrocities that ushered in the Age of Aquarius. But somewhere along the way in 54 years, I've learned a thing or two about fashion … and comfort.
When my career was, let's say a little more lucrative – that is, I had a full-time job and no child in college – I actually loved to browse the "Last Call at Neimans" shoe sales in Dallas for some of my favorite European labels. I scored a few pairs of high-heeled French Maud Frizon boots at Barbara Jean at a half-price sale that I wore for years.
I also love Donald J. Pliner and his collection of distinctive shoes. Everybody needs at least one pair of "go-to" shoes that give old clothes a unique personality, and I found a pair of slip-on red and black velvet mules that fit my red fetish perfectly. The two-inch "kitten" heel on these shoes is my answer for the baby boomers "high heel." It gives you just enough height, without making you feel like you're going to topple over anything or anyone. Through the years, I've learned that the thicker the heel is, the more evenly your weight is distributed and, thus, the more comfortable the shoe. I know that doesn't have a thing to do with the fact that I've gained a few pounds myself. Meow.
I have to confess I bought a pair of Donald J. Pliner 5-inch "killer" stilettos last year at Dillard's during an end-of-season sale and still have not had a chance to wear them. But I love to just look at them. Ditto for the red suede Calvin Klein pointy toe pumps I bought during my fashion director days in the '80s at M.M. Cohn. I can't squeeze my big toe into them anymore, but I can't bear to give them away, either.
Don't even mention the word orthopedic sandals, however. Girlfriends, there are just too many shoes out there that can make you look good and feel good at the same time. I, too, have experienced the dreaded plantar fasciitis of heel pain, and it isn't fun. After all, when you put seven times your body weight on the ball of your foot, day after day, year after year, just what do you think is going to happen? But there is hope for those of us who have fallen off our high-heel rockers.
Just take a peek the next time you're in the drug store at the Dr. Scholl's display. There's an answer for your every foot problem, including wearing high heels…if you insist. I can personally attest to "gellin'" all over Manhattan on a recent trip to fashion week. The blister spray by Band-Aid also came in handy.
But comfort technology has come to the rescue of baby boomers who are tired of being left in the "lurch" by shoes that are anything but comfortable. Shoe manufacturers are finally offering chic footwear with high-tech performance.
Check out these designers: Tayrn Rose, a former podiatrist, uses Poron, a foam invented by NASA, to make the foot beds of her shoes softer; Kenneth Cole has a collection of shoes called Reaction that uses built-in shock absorbers; and Cole Haan uses Nike Air technology in its high heels (a favorite of Oprah). Other shoe companies like Munro, Merrill, Ecco, Born, Clarks and Naturalizer are all stepping up the style factor of their comfort shoes.
And then I have friends who prefer the "old" technology. They load up on the $6.50 rubber flip flops in a rainbow of colors at Old Navy every year. But another boomer insists that she just can not "stand" to have anything come between her toes, so she is stuck on platform sandals. Hopefully, most of us have traded in the clunky sneakers for more streamlined high-tech athletic shoes. And for a few of my old hippie friends, nothing but their Birkies will do.
For day-to-day wear, I stick to low-heel slides and flat driving shoes. I love all the new trendy ballet slippers, but those just aren't my style. I'll leave those to my dancing diva of a daughter. The bottom line: Shop carefully for your shoes. You may not be able to wear the va-va-voom Barbie stilettos anymore, but there are some great stylish options out there.
And I love the birthday card one of my friends gave me this year: On the front of the card two women are walking down the street carrying their shopping bags as one turns to the other and says, "To stay young, the doctor said to exercise and eat the right foods." The other one says, "What?!"
Open the card and you get the message: "I thought he said ACCESSORIZE and BUY NICE SHOES!" 'Nuff said.