My mother was raised in a fashion era when handbags matched shoes and shoes matched outfits and outfits were haute couture. The third eldest of eight children, my mother grew up poor in a house where food, not fashion, was the priority. She was not considered beautiful then. She was too tall, too big, too strong.
In the short time my mother was on her own before marrying my father, her fashion sense bust loose and her love of shoes emerged.
One minute there was an overweight gawky child with second hand clothes. The next, there was a stunningly beautiful woman with a made-to-fit outfit and dynamite shoes. I look back on photos of her then and she was the perfect mix of elegance, class and sex appeal.
The irony, of course, is that my mother never considered herself sexy. She was a wife and a mother and had a full-time job.
But, oh, her shoes, they transformed her.
My mother had a ritual when dressing up to go out for a special occasion. I would bask in each step of the process: The bath. The powder under the breasts. The Tigress fragrance. The good bra and girdle, the good stockings, the fitted dress, the pearls. The red lipstick.
Black patent leather stiletto pumps with heels so sharp and lethal she should have had a license to wear them. They screamed sexy.
I would lie on her bed and watch as she pulled the shoebox off the shelf and fold aside the tissue paper to reveal its secret. When she slipped on those shoes, it was the climax, the finale. My admiration and envy were the standing ovation.
On Saturday, my mother turns 80, which got me thinking about her when she was young and I was little and played with her shoes. She suffers from arthritis and has difficulty walking, now. She hasn’t put on a pair of stiletto pumps in 20, maybe 30 years. Still, she never fails to admire a well-designed, well made pump. I watch her as she walks by the shoes in the department store. She’ll pick up a shoe, comment on the color or the quality of the leather and might say, “Now, I like that kind of heel.” Now, her shoes have soft, flat soles and are, for the most part, utilitarian. But every once in a while she’ll squeeze her swollen feet into a pair of classic black pumps with a more modest heel, but still, I sense a little bit of sexiness about to burst out. And I wonder if she longs for the days when shoes matched outfits and outfits were haute couture. I know I do.