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Updated: May 24, 2023

“I firmly believe that with the right footwear one can change the world.”

Bette Midler said that and I’m the last to argue with her. Feet—and what they’re shod in—occupy an important place in my works of fiction. Partly it’s because I’m embarrassed for them. Poor feet, so often overlooked in stories. Unless, that is, the author’s retelling Cinderella. I did a Cinderella-type story once, “The Cinder Wench,” set in 1845 England. I think I wrote it just to get to this part:

She looked at the Duke’s heir and summoned every ounce of acting ability. Sweetness poured into her words, all the more cloying because of her frigid stare.

“Your Highness does me too much honor. But I think we would not suit.”

That was actress Eveline Belle-Amie publicly rejecting the outstretched hand, silk slipper in it, of her erstwhile Prince Charming. (Not to worry, Evie throws herself into the arms of her fellow-actor Jean-Luc, so the story has a happy ending.)

Another tale I authored, a Victorian romance titled The Corset Girl, begins with a downtrodden maid running back to work after an unscheduled absence.

As she ran, Jillian wept. It didn’t change anything but she couldn’t help herself. Her shoes were worn, the soles paper thin, and every footfall hurt.

In an age when one couldn’t pop down to the local discount mega-store and grab a pair, a person’s shoes, even if the rest of their clothing was fluffed up, defined exactly who and what they were. You climbed the social ladder well shod or you tumbled off it in down-at-the-heels brogues.

I’m lecturing at a conference in Lancaster, England this summer. I’ll be in Jacobean Era clothing and the footwear is giving me fits. Class-conscious folks in the 1600s would have agreed with Bette Midler completely: your fortunes rise or fall depending on what’s on your tootsies. Good repop 17th century shoes exist and they are as out of my reach as another airline ticket to the UK. I’ve compromised to wear a pair of embroidered mules, low-heeled or heelless shoes that a Jacobean woman wore at home. The photo accompanying this blog post is an artifact pair of brocade mules dated to 1600-1625.

Pretty. Not a shoe you run in and not one you wear to a ball to impress a Prince, but if you can keep ‘em on your feet you might just hang onto the rung of the social ladder you’ve climbed to that point.

What are you wearing today?

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