That’s right. Every Friday (if I remember, and you bet I will). Right here on Gangrey. All ages. No cover. Retro Henry Allen.
April 14, 1995
Nobody understands the white shoe thing.
Nobody understands much of anything, actually, but that’s too grim a thought for spring, which is here, along with white shoes.
You ask: What white shoe thing?
Think of the white bucks on a New Orleans cotton broker. Think of white babydoll ankle-strap spike heels on an 18-year-old watching her date lose at baccarat. Think of white Gucci loafers with brass hardware (as if the entire ’70s had gone yachting), and Doc Martens neo-fascist combat boots in white — Moby Boot! They have the white shoe thing.
Now think of white sneakers. Basketball shoes. Tennis shoes. They don’t have the thing. Though oddly enough, golf shoes and nurses’ shoes do.
White Topsiders have it, but only as long as they’re perfectly white. The little sneakers Southerners used to call “tennie pumps” have it, but only when worn by cheerleaders in mid-air at football games. White sandals have it, but white espadrilles do not.
White shoes don’t turn you into something else, the way Bass Weejuns turn you into a preppy, or sling-backs turn you into a seductress. Quite the opposite. Like alcohol, white shoes reveal what you are and amplify it. In calceo albo veritas. A used-car salesman’s oiliness glistens nowhere more than in his white shoes; a naval officer’s white shoes have the cool discretion of fireflies in a June twilight.
The thing depends on surprise. You expect to see people in white espadrilles, but “you don’t expect to see people in white shoes,” says Joe Zee, fashion market editor at Allure magazine. “With white shoes you’re making a statement. You can’t be somebody meek and wear white shoes.”
You can be a geek and wear them, but not a meek geek.
When I was 13, with braces and a crew cut, I wore white bucks to a Y dance in the factory town where I lived.
“Hey,” said a guy leaning against the wall.
“Ah, what?” I asked brightly.
“Those shoes,” he said.
“Take ’em off.”
I just kept on walking, and kept on saying to myself, “Just keep on walking.”
White shoes per se are not sexy, though white sandals can approach the sexy open-toe shoe thing. They are virginal, which can be sexy too — the cheerleader factor.
Think of a recent ad with the Guess? jeans girl of the moment — a messy, big-boned blonde who always looks as if she’s just about to change her mind.
She lies on a bed in capri pants. She has one foot lifted, crowned by an anklestrap white shoe with a heel thin enough to perform a spinal tap. She needs all the virginity she can get, and the shoes have it, but not quite enough of it.
White is pure, white is safe, white doesn’t have any of the diseases that drifted in with the sexual revolution in the 1960s — which was also the era of the white go-go boot, sometimes worn by dancing girls suspended in cages in nightclubs. It does provoke memories of the tackiness that was the greatness of the ’70s — a men’s outfit, sometimes a leisure suit, involving a lot of the color burgundy, and a white plastic belt matching white plastic shoes. This was known as the “full Cleveland,” a look with an innocence all its own.
White shoes, so easily dirtied and wildly impractical, are conspicuous waste, as Thorstein Veblen put it. They show you’re rich enough to walk across the earth and not care if you get any on you.
This paradox is exploited by Guess?’s stacked-heel white sandals with off-road, back-country lug soles. They look like someone was recruiting Las Vegas showgirls to fight forest fires.
The soles of the shoes of Marine officers’ summer mess-dress uniforms (the ones with the high collars) are white too. This is especially pointless at receptions on the commandant’s lawn before the twilight parades at the Marine Barracks. Grass stains! Officers only! Pointless is part of the white shoe thing, and the officer thing as well.
White shoes have an excursion quality.
Think of men in blue blazers hopping around Edgartown, on Martha’s Vineyard, on the Fourth of July. They hop onto curbs, they hop across puddles, they hop up steps of houses where parties are being held.
Think of a yacht moored in the harbor of a Mediterranean resort whose pottery-colored houses and bougainvillea spread up the hillside like the peacock headdress on a dancer at the old Copacabana. The crew wears espadrilles. The owner wears white loafers that look soft enough to leave a thumbprint in.
Or think of a great wallowing powerboat, Greed’s Deed out of Wilmington, Del., say, a boat with the nautical deftness of a wet mattress, and the class of shag carpeting and a second wife carrying a toy poodle. She and the poodle wear matching sunglasses. The husband wears Sansabelt slacks and white patent loafers.
Alas, the story turns sad. They hit a squall. They capsize and sink. All that is found is an oil slick and one of her wooden-soled white sandals, floating upside down.
“White is a tourist shoe in New York,” says Vivian Infantino, fashion director at Footwear News, and a New Yorker. Are they sexy? If she were trying to seduce a man at lunch, would she wear white shoes?
“Not in New York,” she says.
Footwear News offers its definition of the white shoe thing next to a picture of Isaac Mizrahi’s white ankle-strap heels: “Impish in patent . . . flirtatious and dapper . . . pure as snow . . .”
The saddle shoe is said to be back, but it’s only partly white, and it has a trivializing quality — didn’t Archie Andrews wear them? One hopes that spectator shoes are returning. Black and white, brown and white, the little perforations, a purposeful elegance on women, but a certain roguishness on men — think of old Joe Kennedy in his spectators, sliding into Gloria Swanson’s stateroom in mid-Atlantic.
White shoes have so much psychic clout, so much mana, that they inspire taboos as if they were fetish objects among lost tribes.
They are not worn before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, though in the last couple of years they’ve been seen on European fashion runways with clothes for all seasons. The taboo is still powerful enough that in the movie “Serial Mom,” Kathleen Turner kills the Patty Hearst character for wearing white shoes in the fall.
They should not be worn by men at the office, unless they are in a state that once belonged to the Confederacy and they are also wearing seersucker suits. Otherwise they have to own the business.
“White shoe” law firms were old Establishment operations. Towson, Md., seat of Baltimore County, was once known as “the white shoe capital of Maryland.”
“Once in a while you still see some of the old guys in white shoes,” says Paul Milton, editor of the Towson Times.
Once too, in WASP America, there were springtimes when a young man ventured out in new white bucks. They had a coarse, almost cakey nap. They had red soles. They were like the tennis shoes when men still wore long pants to play tennis.
A friend would stick out a toe and smudge one of them. It was an initiation, like punching a sergeant in the arm when he gets his new stripes.
“Got a spot on your shoe,” the friend would say.
WASPs back then took it as a spiritual obligation not to dress too well or study too hard. It wouldn’t do to walk around in perfectly white shoes. But only a social climber would scuff them himself.
The word “shoe” was Ivy League slang in the 1950s. It implied an ease with one’s superior status, a clubbable offhandedness. It aroused the image of dirty white bucks.
You could clean bucks with a white liquid, but it flattened the nap, and then cracked. Better to use something called a “bunny bag,” a porous cloth sack filled with chalk or talcum or some other substance that, one speculates, was dredged from Lake Carnegie at Princeton.
Women in white shoes look like they’re going someplace, although the new white Mary Janes make them look like they’re taking their time getting there. Men in white shoes look like they’ve arrived, or think they have. They all look confident, happy, even a little silly. Silliness is a form of conspicuous waste too. It means you have status, prestige, rank, entitlement and membership to spare. Sometimes you don’t, really, but you do have a pair of white shoes.