Back in the Day: Shoes that represent
I have a lot of shoes! Now, I am not boasting and will acknowledge that there is no reason for me to have the number of shoes that are in my two closets, in cases under the bed in the guest bedroom or stacked in boxes in the corner of the guest bedroom.
I am focusing on men, as I know that women have a tendency to place great emphasis on having many pairs of shoes in their wardrobes, and yes, they take care of their shoes. You may recall stories of the first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos and her love for shoes. She may have set the standard for having too many pairs of shoes, for the stories indicate that she owned approximately 3,000 pairs. Now, my accumulation of shoes has nothing to do with greed but everything to do with my lifestyle, back in the day.
As a child and teenager, I had limited pairs of shoes, something true of boys. I had my school shoes, my “Sunday-go-to-meeting” shoes, and sneakers for play. My Sunday shoes eventually became my school or everyday shoes; shoes that I did not dare go outdoors wearing for play. If you recall, these shoes lasted for many years. Our shoes were worn as long as they would fit and our parents did all that they could to make them last. Growing up, I recall shoes being half-soled and sometimes fully soled and heels replaced. If your parents could not afford the expense of half or full soles, then cardboard became the means for extending the life of your shoes. Having many pairs of shoes has everything to do with being thrifty with regard to my shopping habits and caring for my shoes today.
Being thrifty was observed by one of my colleagues, about 10 years ago, while on a business trip to Las Vegas, Nevada and we “stumbled” on a Johnston and Murphy Shoe outlet. I did not need any new shoes, but the sign enticed me into seeing if the advertised sign was for real. It read, “Buy one pair and get one pair free.” Thus, I left the shoe store with six pairs of shoes. Now, this was 10 years ago and I must confess that four of these purchases have yet to be worn. But, taking care of my shoes serves as the basis for today’s column. You see, because of my interest in shoes, I pay especially close attention to what men wear on their feet. Therefore, I ask the question, “Is it my imagination or do men pay less attention to the care of their shoes today than they did, back in the day?”
I know that some men will become uncomfortable in my presence when I indicate that I pay close attention to one’s shoes. Paying attention to one’s shoes is an old school trait. For those of you who can go back in time, back to the ’50s or ’60s or earlier, what was one thing that caused a fair amount of fights? Yes, it was stepping on one’s shoes! Do you recall the days after you graduated from wearing shoes lined with cardboard and tied with string? These were usually during the time when you obtained a job while in high school or even a little later in life. You were so proud of being able to purchase a new pair of shoes that it almost seemed that you worshiped them. You did all within your power to keep them looking new for as long as possible. Some men will recall the era of the “old-man’s comforts” that were mainly purchased from Hanover Shoes. We wore them in both the low cut and high-top style. Do you recall how we started polishing these shoes as soon as we got them home from the store? The “spit-shine” was an absolute requirement if you wore comforts in the past. So, what is a “spit-shine” you millennials may be asking? The “spit shine” involves shinning your shoes like a soldier. So, for those that have been in the armed services, you can relate to dusting off your shoes, putting a generous amount of polish over your entire shoe with a small brush, using a moist cotton ball to wet your shoe with special attention to the toe of the shoe and finishing it off with edge dressing. Such an effort can take forty-five minutes and who spends this amount of time shining shoes today?
If you were like me, it was some years before you were able to purchase shoe trees for your shoes. In fact, it was not until my freshman days in college when I went into the dormitory room of a student from Boston that I became aware of shoe trees. Prior to this experience, I did as many of you; I would get my mother’s stockings that she was going to throw away and stuff them into my shoes to enable them to maintain their shape. Shortly thereafter, I scrounged up enough money to purchase shoe trees; initially, the plastic ones and not the cedar type that men use in their better shoes.
The attention I pay to caring for my shoes can be traced back to my childhood. Even though I may have had but two pairs of shoes, my parents insisted that they were carefully maintained. In fact, I can go back to the days of my first pair of shoes, you know the white high-top baby shoes. I can still see my mother placing white polish on these shoes and this was prior to the bottle with the applicator with a handle. Back then, my mother would take a small pad out of the shoe polish box, dab white polish on it and place polish over the entire shoe, shoe strings included. My shoes were often placed on a window sill, with an open window, to dry. Thus, at an early age, the importance of clean, freshly polished shoes was instilled in me. I remember the shoe box in which my mother stored her shoe shining materials; a box containing polishes and cleaners for all types and colors of shoes worn by anyone in our household. It was kept in my parent’s bedroom and as my siblings and I became older, we knew exactly where to go to retrieve items to clean our shoes. So, the importance of clean, well presented shoes that I embrace today is something that has been a part of me from a very young age. For me and some of my friends of my age, we also had a pair of rubber boots or today’s totes to wear over our shoes during inclement weather; something that was quite popular, back in the day.
While my generation paid attention to caring for our shoes, a glance around your place of employment, in the sanctuary at church, while dining out, participating in social events or just walking down the street reveals a situation that is a far cry from what we saw in the past. I know what you see, for I see the same thing. You see men, not women, wearing shoes that are scuffed up, run over with broken shoe laces that are now tied together, and in some cases, soles coming lose from the shoes.
A most common sight are shoes with run-down heels. You may recall that there was at least one business in our neighborhoods that played a major role in keeping our shoes “looking good” in the past; businesses that are hard to find in this day and age. Some of you recall the shoe repair shop. I am sure you can visualize the shoe repair shop in your neighborhood that your family members frequented. I spent many hours waiting at the shoe repair shop in the 4100 Block of Lancaster Avenue in my West Philadelphia neighborhood; sitting in a booth, waiting for my shoes to be repaired. I can recall many other occasions of taking and leaving my shoes for repairs that could not be done while I waited. I must ask, how many of you have your shoes repaired today. Better still, how many of you know of a reliable place to take your shoes for repair? Shoe repair has become a lost art and I suspect that you know of few shoe repair businesses in existence today. So, you probably do as most people at the first sign of a worn sole or heel; if there is some work required on your shoes, they end up in the trash.
I do not expect most of you to embrace my views with regard to the importance I place on a well-kept, shiny pair of shoes. For women yes, but not for men. For many of you, going to the office, church, school or out on the town wearing a nice outfit with sneakers is just “hunky-dory.” After all, these are different times with different standards. It is hard to find anyone wearing a pair of cap-toed, laced-up oxfords, wing tips, spectators, loafers or cordovan shoes today. But, I would like to encourage those of you who have read this column to start a movement that recognizes that you can tell if a man is a gentleman by his shoes today, which was very much the case, back in the day.