These Van Dal shoes have been lurking accusingly at the bottom of my wardrobe for many weeks now.
When I bought these I must have been a much more conservative dresser. The reason for their purchase otherwise is a bit of a mystery to me now. I don’t really want to wear them any more and I for a while I couldn’t remember why.
Like all mysteries, I had to flick around in the dusty dark archives of my mind to find the reason.
I bought them in Frasers on Princes Street in Edinburgh, just round the road from my offices so lunchtime shopping convenience might have had something to do with it. However, equidistant from my office were shops selling work appropriate shoes with much more pizazz Russell & Bromley, Schuh, Helen Bateman and Pam Jenkins .
I remember that at the time I worked in an Edinburgh law practice for a chap who had a very unfortunate habit of identifying women by their body parts and physical attributes: the firm’s HR director was ‘that short woman with the huge tits‘, the female employment law partner was ‘that bespectacled lesbian with the big bum‘ and so on.
“You look fat today” he’d say when I took in letters to be settled and signed. Had I shown as much leg as I do in these pictures I might have gotten a compliment from him. Or groped. Or transferred to another department. I will never know because I was hell bent on dressing as asexually as possible. Cue the sensible Van Dal shoes with knee length skirts and polo necks. The Margaret Thatcher effect.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I loathe and detest Margaret Thatcher. She took the free milk off me when I was in primary school. She taught a generation of British people that greed was good and self-interest was the path to self-enlightenment. There is no public figure on this earth that I detest more. And yet, some aspects of Margaret Thatcher can be glimpsed in these Van Dal shoes.
‘The essence of the well-dressed woman should never be exaggerated,’ the Iron Lady famously declared in 1985. ‘Appearance is the first impression people get of you. And it does matter. It matters tremendously when you represent your country…’.
Say what you like about Maggie (and I do) she maintained a polished façade throughout her years in office – her standard outfit was a shift dress and long coat style jacket with a pair of low heeled Ferragamo pumps. Part of her sartorial style must have been imprinted on just about every other professional woman that started her working life in Eighties Britain. Thatcher had a similarly huge impact on just about every woman who has advanced in politics – either parliamentary or corporate – to this day. Arguably, it has taken 20 years for the Thatcher Effect to start to wear off.
To look at the incessant creep of Thatcher Effect, it is probably instructive to look at the style of one Edwina Currie, who served as Junior Health Minister under Margaret Thatcher for two years from 1986 to 1988.
Here is are two pictures – the first of a young and winsome Edwina Currie from the Sixties, complete with some rather fetching gold pumps, the second of a slightly more mature Edwina visiting her constituency during her Cabinet tenure wearing (aarrgh) flesh coloured flatties.
Young Edwina Currie
For those luckily too young to remember her, Edwina Currie was once described a woman ”capable of a put-down that could fry an egg.” In 1988, her ministerial career ended after she declared that most of the country’s egg production was affected by salmonella. Eggs sales suffered, the British farmers were out for blood and Edwina was too stubborn to issue an apology. She has also written a number of works of fiction and non-fiction including a book entitled ‘A Parliamentary Affair’ (1994) which sold itself on the basis of its clunky but graphic descriptions of oral sex, gay sex and sex involving strawberries and whip cream. She confessed in her 2002 memoirs to having an affair with John Major while they were both ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Why on earth would a women famed for donning stockings and suspenders while shagging John Major wear these clumpy low heeled pumps for a photo shoot?
I blame the Thatcher Effect. Not that dressing in low heels saved her in the end.
Conservative female politicians in the UK have sloughed off Maggie’s influence. Conservative politician Theresa May’s shoes consistently make front page news.
Here are her shoes stealing the show at the Tory conference in 2oo2:
Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
and in 2010 during the lead up to the 2010 elections in the United Kingdom.
Hadley Freeman writing about Theresa May’s shoes in 2002 noted that “her choice of leopard print is objectionable on every possible count of taste. It is outdated, a little bonkers, intrinsically associated with the late 70s and somehow redolent of very tacky and somewhat distasteful sex. In other words, it is the perfect pattern for the Tory party today“.
We may try to kid ourselves that we wear our shoes for our own private enjoyment but other people (not me) are most certainly examining them. In 1987 Susan Kaiser of the University of California conducted research in 1987 which found that we mentally assign shoes into one of four categories:
- feminine and sexy (e.g. high heels, strappy sandals)
- masculine (e.g. loafers, oxford brogues, cowboy boots)
- young and casual (e.g. thongs, desert boots, Keds, Converse trainers)
- asexual or dowdy (e.g. women’s low heeled shoes including career pumps and nurses shoes)
(Source: Kaiser et al Cultural Codes and Sex Role Ideology: A Study of Shoes American Journal of Semiotics 5, 1 (1987) 13 – 34)
Those asked considered Feminine & Sexy shoes to be “erotic and inappropriate for work”.
In another study conducted by Andrew Wilson of Lancaster University the only shoe style acceptable to the majority of (admittedly Polish) businesses interviewed was the flat heeled pump. Preferably black.
You will notice that most female politicians, even the leopard print loving Ms May tend towards lower heeled shoes. Very few women in politics wear high heels and the ones that do suffer for it in the form of magnified scrutiny and criticism from both male and female journalists.
Natasha Stott Despoja, former Australian politician and leader of the Australian Democrats who was alternatively crowned and crucified during her short political career for her youth, good looks and her Doc Marten boots has said:
My now famous [Doc Martens] shoes … generated more publicity than my policy comments … [Female politicians are] still subject to greater levels of media scrutiny and are more commonly described in terms of their appearance and family status.
(Quoted by Tim Blair)
Stott-Despoja wore Doc Martens because they were low heeled and comfortable and that was what she had worn before she was appointed to office. Under the Kaiser categories, the Docs would be considered to be Young and Casual’ shoes. There is nothing young and casual about Australian politics.
In 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice was jointly admired and castigated for wearing a pair of black, high heeled, knee length boots with a long military style coat to a meet and greet at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield.
her “spike-heeled boots” make her look “like the hostess at an S&M parlor”
squawked Lee Rodgers of San Francisco radio station KSFO’s The Lee Rodgers & Melanie Morgan Program.
Robin Givhan a (female) writer for the Washington Post clearly couldn’t figure out whether she loved or hated Rice’s boots:
“Rice’s coat and boots speak of sex and power — such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual”
It seems very strange to me that such a fuss could be made of a pair of very smart but not particularly subversive winter dress boots. But the boots have high heels which assign them in most people’s eyes to the Feminine & Sexy and therefore inappropriate for work category.
Incidentally and for the avoidance of doubt, Ms Givhan, this is what a pair of dominatrix boots actually looks like:
In 2008, Senator John McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his vice-president in the US Presidential Election. She immediately made headlines by wearing a pair of Naughty Monkey Double Dare Pumps when Senator John McCain announced her as his vice-president in the run up to the US Presidential Election. Here is a representative sample of Sarah Palin’s shoes:
Non of her heels were particularly high but Palin was hit with a barrage of snotty media remarks about her appearance. Her verbal faux pas were pounced upon by the media and comedians with delight and her private family life eviscerated shamelessly. All I will remember of this woman sadly is that she had a nice smile, glasses, put her foot in it a lot, was impersonated flawlessly by Tina Fey and had a teenage daughter who became an unwed mother. In other words, any intelligence or political spark that Palin may once have had is buried for ever. Media mission accomplished.
Possibly the fundamental mistake that both Condoleeza Rice and Sarah Palin made was that they preferred wearing footwear that fall in Susan Kaiser’s Feminine and Sexy shoe category. More than anything else, female polititicians who draw attention to the fact that they are attractive women are mistrusted. Perhaps the sex and power combination is a too lethal combination.
No doubt Rachida Dati would have something to say about all this. Five days after she gave birth to her daughter Zohra by Caesarian Section she was photographed returning work in her role as the (then) French Justice Minister. You will notice that she is wearing an extremely elegant pair of what I believe are Roger Vivier heels. She is also elegant and beautiful with exquisite taste in shoes. Surely no-one in the press could find fault with her dress sense?
Ms Dati has copped it from all angles not for her high heeled shoes but for being a bad example to women. Florence Montreynaud of the feminist organization Chiennes de Garde (Guard Dogs) likened Dati to women in the 1920s who gave birth on the factory floor for fear of being fired. The hundreds of readers who ranted on the website of the magazine Femme Actuelle the day after Dati’s return saw a different problem: many accused the Minister of near-criminal mothering (See the TIME article here Mother Justice by Vivienne Walt for examples of more opprobium). This is a woman from an un-privileged background who put herself through university and who demonstrates an extremely sharp legal mind. She may not have spent the first two months of her daughter’s life schlepping about the house in her pyjamas but that does not make her an unfit mother or a bad role model.
Not long after, the French press in a sadly typical volte face criticised her for wasting money on designer clothes and shoes. She has now been accused of being the person behind starting the Twitter rumours that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni are living apart and having extramarital affairs.
Miss Dati is walking with her tall in her signature elegant high heels. Earlier this month she visited Bagdad during the Iraqi elections. She dressed down in jeans and a black blouse but still looked every inch the ambassador. During a visit to a children’s hospital she told off a paparazzi photographer for pointing his camera at her feet:
“It’s not very cool to film my shoes” she said.
And that pretty much sums it up for me. Shoes don’t make the woman but they are an intrinsic part of her. By labelling the shoes as frivolous, you are deriding the essence of the woman wearing them.
To focus on one bit of a female politician’s apparel is undeniably fetishistic and deflects attention away from what that woman has to offer by way of policy, argument and legal reforms. To judge anyone by their shoes is utterly unfair.
But sadly, we can’t help ourselves.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to @princessnowhere, @mellalicious, @nomesmessenger @MissBenBen and @gilfer for your shoe suggestions. PS I am still trying to find out whether or not Paul Keating ever wore cowboy boots.