What I Learned About Shoes (and Men) in Toronto

Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

It seems that we’re not having a cultural conversation about shoes at the moment.

Shoes get the most attention during good times, boom times, the bull market of the 1980s gave us Imelda Marcos; the 1990s begat Carrie in Sex and the City. Oh sure, we’re still buying shoes, and more to the point in economic downturns, people have trouble affording shoes.  This is not as much fun as people who have unreasonable number of shoes, or insanely expensive shoes, and so the chatter about shoes has subsided.

When I was in college, in central New York State, I worked at a discount shoe store at the mall. At that time, there was a very liberal return policy, you could return shoes for any reason, without limitation of any kind.   And so, several times a week, a customer would approach me at my post behind the register, with an empty shoebox in hand.  They’d lean on the counter while they took their shoes off, plopping them one at a time into the waiting box.  Stocking footed, they’d say things like,  “these shoes didn’t fit,” or “I didn’t like them”. And I would need to reach into the shoe, still warm and redolent,  in order to slightly bend out the side to find the SKU number printed on the inside, by some means apparently impervious to wear. I would enter it into the register, which would spit out the  shoe’s current price– usually $5, the lowest price at which we sold adult shoes. They could use this as store credit, and they’d pad over to the bottom racks to find a pair that fit — we almost always had a few pairs in every size. I’d enter the transaction in the register as a matter of bookkeeping, no money would change hands.It was really something of a shoe investment scheme, a way of flipping their shoe purchase so that they retained five dollars worth of permanent shoe equity.

I don’t begrudge them this now — the poverty in that part of New York state was extreme at the time and probably is worse today. But I have to admit that I didn’t like it much at all back then.  These customers never looked in any way distressed or ashamed or concerned by their outright lies to me, or by their flouting the spirit of the system, if not the letter.  Now, I’m not sure that I cared about the system much either, in the way of hourly employees everywhere, I felt vaguely screwed over by my employer. Mostly I didn’t like reaching into someone’s dirty warm shoes. Before I graduated from college, the policy had changed, imposing a time limit on returns and the need for a receipt and I presume the shoe-flipping came to an end.

Anyway, as soon as I heard about the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, I wanted to go. Besides my quasi-professional experience, I like shoes a lot —  which being female is something of a cliché, the gender exlusivity of which I shall soon question.  I also like smaller, single-topic museums, they strike me as the physical manifestation of an essay, in which you can unravel a single topic to gain insight onto many other subjects, if not everything in the world.

The Bata Shoe Museum did not disappoint. Its permanent collection includes footwear from many different cultures and over 4,500 years of history.  You learn a lot about adaptation to circumstances – the shoes that most of us wear today are designed for contact with even floors and pavement, but some of the weirder looking shoes  speak to other terrains and purposes: the dangerous, spiked clogs worn for chestnut-crushing in France in circa 1800-1900; the jikatabi, a boot that looks like a mitten with two fingers worn by Japanese electricians, the nalin or kabkab worn in Turkey in public bathhouses to avoid contact with hot and wet floors.  (See pictures here.)

And, I’d argue, you could learn a little something about men, too, particularly those that tend to bluster about men not caring about shoes, because men never have and never will — a sentiment to which Bata cleanly puts the lie.  For instance, the museum maintains a collection of shoes made by Native Americans, and while shoemaking and embellishing in these communities is almost always a women’s art,  Zuni wedding boots, are traditionally made for the bridegroom for his bride, out of a bleached deerskin. It’s  a tradition that is echoed in the Netherlands, where a man would carve clogs for his betrothed, and in France, where hand-carved clogs were a traditional Christmas Eve gift of love. (See all these shoes here.)

Oh fine, making shoes is different from wearing them.  But if you look back into history, perhaps for a time when men were really men, such men did not find reason to eschew nice shoes. For instance, in the early 19th century Europe, for men and particularly men of means wore intricate and gaze-worthy footwear, some as flamboyant as preening peacocks. By comparison, women’s shoes of the time were boring, covered by all those long skirts, and by further comparison, men’s shoes of today are drab and funereal. (With the exception of Elton John’s shoes, also on display at the museum, although presumably the elaborate shoes from days of yore did not make an obvious point about masculinity, virility, sexuality of their wearer.)

Nearly every piece of literature about the museum flags one piece of its collection as being of particular interest to men: Napoleon’s silk socks. They are interesting enough, but in the end, they’re only socks. And since we now know that somewhere, deeply (and in some cases, I’ll grant, seemingly irretrievably) encoded in the DNA of every man is a secret fascination with shoes, perhaps these socks are a cover for reeling men into the museum.

And, if you’ll allow me to speculate still further, perhaps, when the economy picks up again,  our next cultural conversation about shoes will have a man as its muse.

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