Head over heels

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They lust after them and suffer for them. Why does an obsession with shoes bring so many women to their knees?

The malaise may be incurable, but at least we are noting the symptoms. A survey last year revealed that 8% of British women own more than 100 pairs of shoes. More recently, eBay researchers found that 7.5m shoes were languishing unworn in our wardrobes, purchased out of what? Greed, attraction, compulsion? Before Valentine’s Day, we were informed by another survey that most women would prefer new shoes to a romantic encounter, unless the sex was in exchange for shoes and bag. Actually, I made the last bit up, but you get the idea; shoes now matter to the point of obsession, the point where the better question for these surveys would be: do women love the bells on their toes more than the children under their roofs? Frankly, it’s weird. Shoes are functional, necessary, better handsome than hideous, but essentially what separate us from the gum, litter and rank slurry that coats our pavements. For me, that is. For others it’s a different story: one of passion and addiction.

Crouched on an antique carpet in the boudoir of a willowy blonde actress, I feel like an anthropologist on a field trip, poised to observe the habits of a strange tribe, the shoe people. Ethereally beautiful, Nina Young has spread before us a jewel-like collection of footwear. In this season’s high peep-toe by Christian Louboutin, she feels “slinky”; her satin Marni heels with a bow make the foot look tiny. With a sigh she shows me a “mistake”, a darling Jimmy Choo in silk paisley with a diamanté buckle. (I sense poor old Jimmy is slipping from Nina’s favour: too much the booty of the aspirant B-list celebrity.) Next to them stand the silver Prada wedges she wears for her boyfriend, and a pair of aqua high heels, with pretty lace around the upper, which were named “Nina” by their designer, Georgina Goodman, after this discerning client who has no idea how many pairs she owns.

“Ooh, it’s high,” I sympathise. But the expert demurs, calling it merely “comfortably high”. Marc Jacobs cowboy boots are the closest she gets to a runabout shoe; trainers are strictly for running. In her sitting room is a glossy brown pet snake called Manolo who is threatened with being made into boots when he is naughty.

Shoe people can be pitiable, like Victoria Beckham, at times so stymied by teetering platforms she looks incapable of voluntary movement, a living case for the return of the sedan chair. But Nina’s collection is like her: discreet, polite, owing nothing to common bling. Looking down at my flat boots, suddenly appalling, I know with sad certainty that they are too ugly to be mentioned; this highly intelligent woman would rather die than wear what I have on my feet.

We are buying more shoes. The UK market is expanding faster than that of France or Italy, where women spend more on fewer pairs, and where a flat Ferragamo loafer is viewed as an investment that nobody, save its wearer, is required to admire. Most of our footwear is made in China and Vietnam rather than my mother’s home town of Northampton, meaning we can afford mountains of it. But our high-street boom is not the story. What we’ve come to adore are the It-girl numbers, the ornate, statuesque or strippy-strappy designer shoes that account for 1% of the £6.5 billion domestic market but are the beauties of the trade. Once the preserve of royalty and Bianca Jagger, they now bedazzle every dolly TV presenter, half-baked Wag and fan of Sex and the City, in which the artiste of the archive-worthy shoe, Manolo Blahnik, became a household name.

We have fallen under a spell, and a sort of benign national joke that everyone enjoys: women and shoes, what are they like? Ten years ago you couldn’t easily buy a “Shoeholics” novelty key ring or “couture” chocolate shoes, and only the wealthiest paid £195 for their espadrilles (Louboutin’s price) 10 years ago; moreover, it would have been harder for Caroline Groves, a bespoke shoemaker in London’s Chiltern Street, to unveil such a high-luxury concept. Groves’s clients pay around £1,200 for the first pair, maybe £900 thereafter. “When people are paying £500 or £600 for designer shoes that may not even fit them properly,” says the artisan, “it is not such a stretch to imagine that they would pay twice that for a bespoke shoe made for their feet alone.”

Are expensive high heels more comfortable than their high-street cousins? It seems so. It’s not just a case of better leather and no synthetic linings; what matters is balance. “In fine designer or bespoke shoes,” says Groves, “the heel is right for the pitch of the last, meaning you are not tipped forwards onto the ball of the foot; the weight is borne underneath the arch of the foot.”

My friend Kate buys a new pair of shoes for each outfit. Of all the treats on which she has “wasted” (my word) money, she has never questioned their value. “They enhance my world,” she says. Anthea Turner keeps hers in pristine Perspex boxes stacked high and adorned with Polaroids of the contents for easy reference. The actress Amanda Mealing says she buys shoes whether she can walk in them or not. Penelope Cruz is a goner: “I have never been able to study a new role until the director and I have chosen the shoes.” And then there’s me – 10 pairs, clean enough, replaced rather than repaired; unloved, unthanked. I doubt if they are happy. “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams,” was W B Yeats’s gentle caution, but I have never trodden softly. I have clomped like a builder through life, accused from an early age of being “heavy on my shoes”, a mortal sin in the hard-pressed households of less disposable times.

The script Nina Young was learning when we met, for the BBC’s daytime drama Doctors (hardly fashionable viewing), stated that her character “totters across the floor in her Jimmy Choos”. We are all in thrall to the holy trinity of Choo, Blahnik, Louboutin. People explain it in different ways: some say shoes allow us to buy into an otherwise unaffordable designer brand in the way fragrance once did. “Magazines used to tell us what perfume Grace Kelly wore,” says Robina Dam, the former editor of Shoo magazine. “Now they tell us what shoes Nicole Kidman wore on the red carpet.” Dam herself owns 147 pairs, her favourite a pair of Roman gladiatorial dominatrix sandals with 41/2in heels by Bottega Veneta, bought when her bills were screaming for attention. Why? She looks at me as if I were not quite with the programme. “I had to have them. It was a primeval urge.”

For its short and glossy life, Shoo interviewed women about shoes, high-achievers who were delighted to present themselves as obsessives. The make-up artist Ruby Hammer admitted to 300 pairs, which her daughter borrows. “She measures how much I love her,” laughs Hammer, “by the number of times I let her wear the shoes I haven’t worn yet.” Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie’s wife, the sultry actress Padma Lakshmi, trailing behind with 250 pairs, answers his questions about why she needs so many shoes with one of her own: “Why do you need more books?”

For some women, I’m told, shoes are a substitute for an affair: surrogate love gods that give pleasure and ask nothing in return, a cheap thrill which costs a fortune. What they impart is an unbridled girlieness, a bejewelled femininity that steals nothing from their wearers, who are – since they are footing the bill – entirely in control. In the 1970s, the sassy modern chick was advised to notch up her orgasms rather than her stilettos. But that self-assured (and mostly mythical) Cosmo adventuress gave away too much of herself; she courted danger and disease, eventually dissipating the very female mystique in whose name she embraced the liberal sexual climate. Her modern equivalent wants that mystique back. She chases Prada slingbacks instead of serial encounters; they are safer, more reliable, connected to sex, of course, but not necessarily in pursuit of it. And as the appetite for fine footwear refines itself, the “f***-me shoes” of the mid-market are yielding to – in the words of one designer – the “I’ll-f***-you-if-I-feel-like-it shoes” sold in exclusive boutiques or the bespoke shoemaker’s atelier. Such shoes enhance allure, but don’t announce availability. Rather have shoes than sex? Depends what kind of sex.

Others think it’s the fit-all nature of footwear that appeals to so many of us; you can relish it even when you are fat. I don’t buy this: pouring heftiness into pointy toes and spindly heels looks absurd. I once worked with a woman who sought to cantilever her avoirdupois, teetering around the newsroom with a pinched but self-pleased expression; she was soon dubbed the “pig on stilts”, an insult so apt as to be unforgettable, and a warning. The truism is that shoes confer instant glamour and sexiness, and expensive ones are a way of demonstrating our superior status. Caroline Cox, a historian of shoes and fashion, thinks it’s to do with the marketing of accessories as “must-haves”, such as Louboutin’s “Very Prive”, this spring’s life-defining shoe, a nude patent skyscraper at £450.

“Luxury has taken over post-millennium as a key force in fashion,” says Cox, author of Seduction. Shoes have somehow become equated with self-esteem. We deserve them. But I am suspicious as hell of anything that invites me to embrace my inner girlie-girl. And never mind the politics, the thrifty, higher-minded, moral me also protests. I don’t disapprove of extravagance per se; personally, I can’t live without Brora cashmere cardigans and a bottle of Creed’s Fleurissimo in summer, but 200 pairs of expensive shoes? Come on. What about the deadly sins of avarice and covetousness, the sheer boneheaded vanity of caring more about your feet than your spiralling debts? Corazon Aquino put Imelda Marcos’s 1,000-plus shoe collection on display “so that Filipinos can see how the person who let the people go hungry indulged herself”. Don’t we all see her point?

Sadly, I fear the new passion for high-stepping luxury has been ignited by nothing more fascinating than “celebrity culture” and its fake promise that anyone can join the party. The procession of lookalike soap actresses wearing beautiful shoes in Heat magazine and its imitators leads otherwise sensible girls to jostle with baby aristos on waiting lists at Hermès and Gucci for what they can’t remotely afford. Me, I love Clarks.

In his boutique in Old Church Street, Chelsea, Manolo Blahnik sits modestly atop this dizzying consumption as the once sensible British woman reinvents herself as a bird of paradise. But there are ever more designers of fabulous shoes chasing the pampered foot. There are established names like Patrick Cox and Emma Hope, who doesn’t like her delicate shoes to be called feminine because “it sounds as though you are a bit useless”; the retro 1970s comeback kid Terry de Havilland; newer stars like Georgina Goodman and Rupert Sanderson; and, of course, Tamara Mellon, the glamorous figurehead of Jimmy Choo, who made a cool £90m by selling part of her stake in the £180m company she founded.

For the big fashion houses like Chanel and Dior, accessories are money-spinners, export-winners, trailblazers for the brand. They cross national and religious frontiers without the potentially offensive skimpiness of garments, a luxury as risqué and discreet as La Perla knickers under a burqa. Handbags feature too, of course, but the price of a metallic Chloé Paddington (£924), say, becalms the stampede.

Divine shoes, meanwhile, have moved from Roxy Music’s album covers to the front rooms of Ilford, as the girls doll up to hit the town on Saturday night; they tell me certain East End nightclubs these days are better shod than a Versailles masquerade. Aren’t we all smitten? Women are deemed to adore shoes the way they are assumed to like Richard Curtis movies – inevitably, universally, patronisingly. Shoes have become shorthand for an old-fashioned femininity we thought had deserted us, a dubious attribute in a politically correct world. Do Nina Young’s boyfriends approve of her habit? “Yes,” she smiles, “but they think it’s a bit mad.” Lovable, endearing, daffy; men haven’t had an excuse to think of women that way since Goldie Hawn was on Laugh-In. No wonder male newspaper editors and magazine publishers love to fill their pages with stories about girls and shoes.

When Georgina Goodman, 41, was growing up, her mother visited the hairdresser once a fortnight for pampering; and according to Goodman a “quick shopping fix for a pair of pretty shoes” can have the same soothing effect. Shoes are indeed transporters, walking us into what we see as our world, mine being defined by work and chasing after a four-year-old; for others a longing for the velvet cocoon of the poule de luxe. So-called “limo shoes” are never meant to meet gritty pavements, they are purchased for sheer beauty, sometimes worn just once, a sort of dream fashioned from kid leather and peacock feathers if you’re lucky.

Peering in as an outsider at a world where my friends – none stupid or insane to my knowledge – have swooned over military boots by Marc Jacobs (I recall an entire conversation from which I was excluded), I stomp about in my Converse trainers, roomy Boden loafers, my unremarkable suede boots, my babouches from the souk in Essaouria, and every time I try to sashay forth with fab feet it goes wrong. At a summer party, my gold fabric heels sink three inches into the lawn, leaving me flat-footed as a duck, pinioned to the spot, as the canapés circulate. At a Christmas party I sneak off because I can’t contain the agony caused by my vicious satin four-inchers. But then I always knew I was a lost cause. Over a decade ago I was told kindly but firmly by Manolo’s elegant sister that I have the “wrong kind of feet” for the maestro’s more exquisite creations and was recommended a nice pair of (still excruciating, actually) plain black high courts, which languished in a chic shoe bag until their death by natural causes some years later.

It is not that shoes never mattered to me. For little girls they are essential clues to the future and its thrilling possibilities, especially the footwear of their heroines. With her books Ballet Shoes, Tennis Shoes, Party Shoes, and White Boots, Noel Streatfeild showed unerring instinct for what thrilled her readers. Remember the rose-silk ballet pointes, thrilling white ice skates, the riding boots, should you be lucky enough. More prophetic than all of these were the bridesmaid’s slippers adorned with tiny pearls, a miniature version of the bride’s, which I outgrew long before I did any notion of everlasting romance. Sweetly, girls’ shoes are more about fitting in than price tags. On Putney High Street in the mid-1960s my dad bought me beautiful, barely affordable white leather tap shoes, when what I really wanted were the cheapo ones like everyone else in Mrs Sudworth’s Saturday dance class, the sort that peeled and scuffed, accruing layers of plaster-like whitening as renditions of Me and My Shadow were perfected. Mine were too posh. I was more ashamed of them than anything I’ve worn since.

There were the shoes that prepared you for womanhood: the patent party pumps worn with sticky-out pink dresses from C&A at Marble Arch. Then there were kitten heels that the Catholic girls wangled out of their parents – Hail Mary Janes! – to wear at first communion, while the C-of-E contingent bitterly envied that precious elevation, a whisper of stilettos to come. I lost my weakness for princess toes somewhere between Barbie and The Beauty Myth, though I blame neither for the loss; rather, I think my flat-Earth Northampton roots play a part. During a childhood partly lived there, that sensible town hummed with the sound of soles being expertly stitched to leather uppers; but communities that manufacture things rarely idolise them. My female teachers and relations were no-nonsense Midlands matriarchs – some married to the men who made the shoes and ran the factories – who scorned all show-off affectations, in shoes or anywhere else. Desiring beautiful “silly” things was discouraged.

Similarly, one cool London designer speaks of the “leaden Anglo-Saxon hand” being unsuited to crafting a high-end product. We make internationally acclaimed men’s shoes: Prada bought Church, while the companies Tricker’s, Crockett & Jones, Edward Green, Alfred Sargent, and so on, all thrive in Northamptonshire. But “something in the blood” puts women’s luxury shoes beyond the skills of our bench-work craftsmen. They are mostly made in Spain and Italy, where the fine leathers and delicate touch produce objects of devotion. For Georgina Goodman, that love is a constant theme; some of her shoes are decorated with silver discs inscribed with the words “I love you”, and on all the soles is written “Made in Love”. “Women have an emotional relationship with their wardrobes,” she says, “especially with their shoes, because our feet are the only part of our body that doesn’t change dramatically during our lives. We have ‘experience’ shoes, our one-night stands, our guilty secrets, our old faithfuls, our enemies – which are the painful ones you have to wear because they were so expensive.”

When hard-core shoephiles enter Goodman’s Mayfair boutique, her husband and business partner, B J Cunningham, sees the love in their eyes. “There is a magic, their eyes are glazed, they are rapt in the beauty of shoes,” he reports. But why? “These shoes are not mass-produced in China. They are made with love and without compromise by a craftsperson.” They are a little bit of perfection in a life that is mostly about mediocrity. One smitten customer, a size 41, buys her favourites in a neat 37 to display on a shelf, art works with potential investment value.

For such creatures, comfort is as nothing compared with elegance. “I can’t stand it when they ask me in shops if it’s comfortable,” says Nina Young. “What do I care about comfortable! Does it look good?” The higher the shoe the more disabled the woman becomes, but do we want women immobilised by footwear, like the foot-binding of imperial China? The designers tease like sly sadists, offering higher heels for steeper prices, along with bunions and bankruptcy. A prime offender is the current darling, Christian Louboutin, who sells what would once have been regarded as fetish-wear, but expects us not to notice, or – taking his tongue-in-cheek advice – to walk slower, which will allegedly give us time to admire the architecture and a better chance of being approached by an interested man. (And absolutely no chance of running away when he turns out to be a mugger.)

For the connoisseur, there is a hierarchy of posh shoes. The lacquered red sole of a Louboutin could soon become too hackneyed for the purists. Jimmy Choo – a publicity-driven business that dished out its goodies to willing actresses at the Oscars – is becoming too Beverly Hills for the cognoscenti, which prizes discretion and mystery over celebrity endorsement. When you can get your Chloé Paddington on Price-drop TV, where is the thrill of the hunt, the satisfaction of being a cut above?

Don’t ask me. As the nation winces and minces, I find myself looking at those wide-fitting slip-ons with elasticated inserts in suicidal tones of beige, mainstays of footwear for the active pensioner that a little bit of me – for all my rejuvenating follies and subscription to Vogue – won’t mind becoming. What about women who can take or leave a Manolo stiletto, I ask Georgina Goodman. Are we odd? No, she reassures, adding that some women are simply intimidated by designer shops. “I think there is a shoe-lover beneath every shoe sceptic.” But what she really means is, yes, yes, we are very odd indeed.