by Mary Trasko
Although she’s only mentioned once, Imelda Marcos may well be responsible for these books. Had the former Philippine first lady not left 2,700 pairs of shoes behind when she fled Malacañang Palace, a theretofore rarely mentioned compulsive syndrome might have remained in the closet. And it’s a question whether these authors could have found an audience—let alone two publishers—willing to celebrate the world of footwear obsession.
It turns out, of course, that there’s a lot to say about shoes, especially if, as McDowell does in Shoes: Fashion and Fantasy, you take a sociological-historical approach. That footwear has figured prominently in such cultural landmarks as Cinderella, Puss in Boots and The Wizard of Oz is not news, but who knew that the Roman emperor Nero, usually partial to silver-soled sandals, wore a gold-soled pair on the day he kicked his wife to death? Or that in Finland, shoes are so significant that a groom may not take his bride to bed until he has given her mother a new pair?
Revelations like these are the most unusual and interesting parts of McDowell’s 220-page book (Rizzoli, $50), more than half of which is full-color and full-page photographs. Unfortunately the narrative drifts, in its second half, into a series of resumes of famous 20th-century shoe designers. A well-known fashion historian, McDowell often falls prey to pretentious, self-referential pronouncements. To McDowell, “[Roger] Vivier is the Fragonard of the shoe” and “Things were never the same after Saturday Night Fever.”
Trasko’s Heavenly Soles (Abbeville, $29.95) is more whimsical, less highblown. Like McDowell, she covers the basics—the Oriental obsession with small feet, foot fetishism and the careers of such 20th-century shoemeisters as Salvatore Ferragamo and Vivier, among others. Like McDowell, she relies heavily on photographs. While McDowell tries to present more of a serious reference work, Trasko gives you the gist and avoids extraneous detail and pompous posturing.
Both books devote considerable space to the shoes-sex connection. McDowell pontificates that “tight lacing excites desire not just because it has a constraining effect but also because it carries the promise of release.” Trasko quotes an expert: “I don’t know who invented the high heel,” said Marilyn Monroe. “But all women owe him a lot.”