A Manifesto for Sensible Shoes

She wasn’t pushing a shopping cart when she pranced out of Costco in red stilettos.

“Why would a woman wear six-inch spike heels in Costco?” I wondered.

Mysteries like this are what make me ponder the podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons I’ve visited, a fellow I knew who admitted a fetish for a certain type of high heel, and a bloke I met in 1980 named Frederick Mellinger.

Mellinger—the legendary Frederick of Hollywood—weathered braless times, earth mamas in Birkenstocks, and feminists who picketed his stores. For decades the mustachioed Mellinger scoffed and simply stuck to fantasies that harked back to the trenches during World War II, he told me. That’s where he and his Army buddies had visions of women in push-up bras, open-ended or padded girdles, and high heels.

By 1946, he launched his lingerie company, where he introduced the first padded bra in 1949. “Passion fashions” is how he described what followed, with plenty of sequins, black lace, and pointy bras that had names like “Rising Star” and “Cadillac.”

The bikini, according to Mellinger, didn’t originate on a Hollywood movie set. Nope, he insisted bikinis started with abbreviated get-ups worn by senior citizens who attended belly dancing classes in Los Angeles.

Naturally, during my interview with him I just had to request that he open his hotel dresser drawer so I could have a look at what underwear he wore. Tidy whiteys they were, neatly folded piles of white cotton boxers and undershirts.

It might seem a stretch, but Frederick of Hollywood did play a role in the ups and downs of high heels. Hey, he turned out to be the man who persuaded me to donate what pumps I had to Goodwill long before any foot doctor recommended tossing them.

“I always love to see a woman in high heels,” Mellinger said, an unforgettable twinkle in his eyes, “because she looks so helpless up there on those stilts.”

It’s unclear how he thought this comment would sell heels of any configuration, but it was all the motivation I needed more than 35 years ago to modify my Dress for Success fashion statement.

Still, I was surprised on a recent wander through an American Cancer Society Discovery Shop (a thrift store) to find 20 or more pairs of never-worn spiky heels on sale for chickenfeed. What a relief. Is the demise of high heels here at last?

After all, even Melania Trump took criticism for wearing vampy stilettos en route to survey the damage of Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year. Then a terrific New York Times article appeared about high-heel naysayers and how footwear can play an effective role in upending gender biases.

Gal Gadot of Wonder Woman fame told USA Today she loved wearing high heels, yet offered this unexpected caveat: “But at the same time, especially stilettos, it puts us out of balance. We can fall any minute. It’s not good for our backs. Why do we do it?” I haven’t a clue, Wonder Woman, but as soon as I read that, I slipped on my Uggs and felt empowered.

I began to pay closer attention to what women had on their feet. Those in their 20s and 30s were more likely to be “up there on those stilts” while those with even a little gray hair appeared to be bounding through life more sensibly. Or so I thought.

This week I met up with my 62-year-old girlfriend Vicky at DSW (aka Designer Shoe Warehouse), where she said she hoped to land a new pair of walking shoes. At some point, she wandered into the sale racks and, before I knew it, started strutting around in a pair of fancy black pumps.

“What do you think?” Vicky asked. “Aren’t these adorable? I just received an invitation to a semi-formal wedding. Perfect, right?”

My eyes rolled.

“They’ll be dancing shoes once I break them in,” Vicky added.

Frederick Mellinger died in 1990, but no doubt he had a good laugh from the afterlife.

Annie Culver developed a knack for unearthing oddball characters and improbable events as a staff writer for various newspapers. In the early 1990s, she went to work for websites where she wrote sassy essays aimed at women. In recent years, she morphed into a writer for several universities in the Northwest. She retired in 2016, yet still enjoys freelancing.


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