Maria Constantini and the Precocity of Shoes

Constantini ponders the magic of shoes @ Diverse Voices Quarterly. My passion for shoes began when I was four, the day my mother took me on a pilgrimage to Pompeii, where I stopped every few steps to bend over and wipe clean my immaculately white ankle-strap shoes. For those of us who rank sporting the right shoe a close second to hair as the feminine crowning glory, shoes are both a delight and a torment. They convey historic, aesthetic, political aspects of our persona. Their stylistic evolution reflects our own: from the bound feet of ancient Chinese women, the satin slippers of French courtesans, the moccasins of Native Americans, Holland’s wooden clogs, Oprah Winfrey’s “one-hour shoes,” to Sarah Jessica Parker’s collection of Manolo Blahniks. In the late ’70s, comedian Steve Martin published Cruel Shoes—farcical anecdotes poking at the cultivated follies of men and women. And I, over the years, have grown to appreciate the nuances of shoe attire.

My husband shakes his head and playfully calls me “Imelda Marcos” whenever he eyes my stacks of shoes in a multitude of colors, styles, height, and fabrics to suit the season or occasion—a meticulous array resulting from hours of carefully planned bargain-hunting. There was a time I willingly spent my last dollar on a pair of stilettos by Jordan. Owning them, holding them with delight, and storing them in my closet brought me a sense of empowerment. I suppose I was making up for that fateful first day in eighth grade at St. Elizabeth’s, when I wore my festive black patent shoes with pointy toes. They complemented the dress my seamstress-aunt had sewn for me. It was September 1956, and my family had just immigrated to Detroit from Italy, where pointy shoes were the vogue, but one glance at the other children’s shoes made me reconsider mine with chagrin. Theirs were a flat conformity of rounded shapes. Painfully, my converging toes cramped and curled in my shoes. My thoughts raced to my father, a shoemaker, from whom I had inherited a legacy of footwear. He had started his shoe venture in the late ’30s upon returning to his native land, after having spent his youth working in his uncle’s grocery store in Newark, New Jersey. He prided himself on his ability to leap into a grand, new business based on his early years of apprenticeship in a shoemaker’s shop. Post-World War II, his handmade shoes were in high demand, proof of his genius for survival. Heavy-soled, unfashionably rustic sandals were just what the local contadini, the fieldworkers, needed to work the land all day beneath the sweltering Southern Italian sun.

Image: Warhol Shoes (circa 1980) at

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