I used to wear size 5, sample size, and life was bliss. I could walk into shoe stores with friends and make them jealous by trying on everything on display while they waited for the salesperson to return with boxes for them. Most of my shoes came from sample sales, causing more jealousy. In truth the shoes were often a bit too big but I made do; after all, shopping for shoes was easy and fun. Then one day, fifteen or so years ago, the industry shifted sizes, and what was a 5 became a 4. Some stores eventually stopped carrying 5s altogether. All this was to accommodate the vanity of American women, whose average sizes had been on the increase. I suddenly could not find shoes anywhere. I knew that a few far flung specialty places (and yes I know Neiman’s but they are not in Manhattan) carried size 4 but the trouble and the cost were added insult to injury after the halcyon days I had enjoyed. I bought no shoes for about a year and a half – can you imagine the torture for a woman in New York City?
Finally one day in desperation I walked into Shoofly’s store on Amsterdam (this branch is now defunct, but you can visit them in Tribeca; see www.shoeflynyc.com; also check out their hats and hair accessories) to see if I could find suitable children’s shoes. I found that I was not the only adult woman in the store shopping for herself; a new obsession was born. I became a devotee of children’s shoes, which are thankfully – at least in this city - chic and sophisticated, well-made, often European. My one dilemma is that it is extremely hard to find real heels, although low heels and wedges do appear. Also, there is a tendency for colors and designs that might seem OTT for the over 14 set. It is fun most of the time to have such shoes – from hot pink clogs with real wood to purple sequins on leopard print. This is all partly because I still love to buy shoes on sale and hence surrender to the serendipity of the hunt when most of the black shoes are gone. My favorite store is Harry’s Shoes for Kids at the end of the season (www.harrysshoes.com). I walk in and declare my size (34 for the most part; New Balance for Kids 21/2 extra wide is my perfect sneaker size, determined by one of the wonderful salespeople here) and often submit to having my foot measured first – I can understand the skepticism of a salesperson who has not yet worked with me. But then they mumble that they will be back with whatever they have on sale in my size. I will try anything, almost, because I still have this lingering fear that I will never again find shoes that fit me.
I do have other shoe haunts, especially discount stores – Daffys and Marshalls (especially the branch in Harlem) have great shoe sections. I wish I could find an outlet that sells Stevie’s, Steve Madden’s children’s line, so that I could try them on before buying; they are available online. His designs tend to wedges and heels, giving me some much needed height. Once in a blue moon I do find adult shoes, the rare 5 or small 6, that fit me. Sometimes it is because of a company that runs small in their sizing, sometimes it is because the design of the shoe (think pointed toe) makes extra length workable. Lately as I have explored Williamsburg I have found two pairs of wedges and a pair of fabulous black heels – Lucy’s advice about the last was that I should buy them and wear them frequently.
The other day I took a long walk in a pair of very comfortable but absurdly colorful sneakers: lilac-silver suede edged in Barbie pink plastic. I bought them in part because they are so over the top. On Park Avenue a young woman and admired them and pointed them out to her companion. She was a toddler and showing them to her mother. I commented that her patent Mary Janes were in my favorite color, a deep burgundy.
These days I usually boast about how small my feet are - on occasion I even display them - in order to talk about shoes and how I shop. People also will notice them before I say anything and make hilarious remarks; one of my favorites of all time was the colleague, whom I had known for years, who exclaimed with new awareness “How do you stay balanced on those”? I sometimes up the ante by saying that my parents bound my feet when I was little. I cannot believe that people fall for it. As both ancient tradition and sizing practices attest, small feet are a sign of beauty, and beauty is not always practical. My shoes rarely make me feel beautiful in the sense of being elegant but they usually make me feel happy and support me well when I walk. Together with my feet they keep me feeling youthful and playful as I get farther away from being one of those customers who scores a balloon at the end of a store visit.
©2009 Leah Strigler