If shoes tell you everything about a person, mine said I was running late. I slipped on my trusty foam platform flip-flops ($9.99, Target) and blazed out the door to meet a friend at Mi Cocina in the West Village, where we planned to watch women in heels, because I could not get over how steep they are in this city.
This is the fashion everywhere, actually. The worse the economy, the higher the heel. But in Dallas, 4-inch wedges are like a civic uniform. Outside a recent Sarah Jaffe concert at the Granada, I watched in horror and amazement as a beautiful blonde weeble-wobbled past in platforms so precarious that she looked like a fawn learning to walk.
“What is going on?” I said, to no one in particular.
“You should see them try to walk on those things at Lee Harvey’s,” the lady next to me said. She raised one eyebrow. “Gravel.”
I understand the appeal. In high school, I wore spike heels any chance I got. I loved the sophistication but also the height advantage. I was a 5-foot-2 scrapper with delusions of being a 5-foot-9 willowy blonde, and I would have slept on the rack every night if it would have added 2 inches to my frame.
Actually, you can thank a short woman for the modern heel. In 1533, Catherine de’ Medici, the height-challenged bride of the Duke of Orleans, the future King Henry II of France, commissioned a cobbler to make her heels for her wedding day, and they became all the rage among the aristocracy.
Heels are still a marker of status, even though $800 Louboutins can be bought at the mall by any suburban girl with a credit card (what hath you wrought, Carrie Bradshaw?). But they are also a kind of feminine brag. To strut in stilettos is to walk fashion’s high wire. To own them is to be the girl with the most cake. Dallas’ Jane Aldridge gained national fame in her teens by blogging about her intimidating collection on a site called Sea of Shoes. I’ve heard a million reasons for women’s current shoe fetish (Louboutin himself attributes it to the way it shapes the female form), but I’m going to throw another on the pile: you can wear them at any size. You can gain 20 pounds, bloat up like a suckling pig, and your shoes still fit.
And so I headed to my observation deck in the West Village, which I had chosen because I wanted the pure spectacle of Dallas’ most popular walking district. I regretted that decision as soon as I arrived at 7:10 and inched up that slalom of agony that is the West Village parking garage. By the time I squeezed my Honda into a tiny space on the top level and dashed to the elevator, I was breathless with impatience. When the elevator stopped for a nice middle-aged couple on the second floor, I could not disguise my look of contempt. Really? You couldn’t walk down one flight of stairs?
But if I wanted a lesson in how Dallas women walk, this was an important one: mostly, they don’t. That night, as I watched women pass in delightful, improbable shoes, I realized it is the city’s car culture that enables such a grand display in the first place. Women in commuter cities like Boston and New York are forced to wear shoes lower to the ground, because climbing subway steps and stepping over homeless men demand mobility. But if you are ferried across town in an air-conditioned SUV, which you then drop off at the valet, you can wear cloven hooves on your feet if you want to. You can wear ice sculptures.
I’d never made this connection before, but it became as clear to me as 7-inch Lucite stripper heels: the same things about the city that frustrate me—reluctance to invest in public transport, eagerness to pave green space with highways or shell out $5 for parking instead of finding a spot two blocks away—are also the qualities that allow Dallas women to dress like orchids that never wilt.
I was heading back to the parking garage at 10 pm when I saw the woman I had been waiting for all night. She was drop-dead gorgeous, wearing a tiny red satin dress that came roughly to her cervix and glittering stilettos that made her tan legs stretch to infinity. If I were an alien, I would have assumed that woman was the queen.
“Did that woman eat dinner here tonight?” I asked the hostess at Mi Cocina, as if I had just spotted a buffalo in the entryway.
She shrugged. “People dress like that all the time here.”
I walked back to my car, dazzled and baffled. I skipped the elevator this time and walked up all five flights of stairs. I kicked off my shoes, cranked up the AC, and drove home barefoot.
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