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The Essayist: The Other Shoe


In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare has Romeo ask his star-crossed lover “What’s in a name?” I’m going to echo that sentiment with a slightly quirky and potentially more ridiculous rephrasing and ask, “what’s in a shoe?”

When I was younger, my dad used to tell me a story. One evening, as a teenager in the Sixties , he was about to pick up his date for the evening. He had the suit, the car, and the shoes. His shoes – a pair of black penny loafers – were the important part; they were polished to such a shine that they looked like black glass. My dad was always proud of his shoes.

He and his date were still in high school, so when he knocked at the door his date’s father answered. At no point in the history of courtship has a paternal figure been more feared than in the first moments after hearing “I’m here for your daughter.”

My dad was sized up from his black hair to his black loafers and (literally) pronounced acceptable. “He polishes his shoes,” the father said aloud. “He can’t be that bad.”

That is a father-to-son story that has really stuck with me. In a lot of ways, the tale of first dates and black shoes is more than just that: it’s an echo of the classic adage of “the clothes make the man.” In this case, the shoes made the man.

What can our choices in footwear tell us about ourselves?

I consulted with my fellow shoe-wearers at the Alaska Commons. I asked what sort of shoes everyone wore, if they had a favorite pair, and how many? In the back-and-forth over Facebook that ensued I discovered three things about Alaskans’ choices in footwear:

1.      We all prefer different kinds of shoes

While we all wear shoes, we all wear something different. Some of us prefer trainers, Dansko’s or Sorrels, while others favor Xtratuffs, sandals, or loafers. We all want to be unique and we express that uniqueness, well, differently.

We express ourselves through our choice of footwear. We put on one pair for one occasion and another pair of something completely different. “Gotta have the right tool for the job,” said one respondent.

Our change in shoe choice reflects where we are in our life. One respondent stated that she only wears trainers while another said that he loves clogs because he hates tying shoes.

2.      The most common shoe is trainers (Vans and Converse)

“I have something like twelve pairs of Converse that I coordinate with whatever I’m wearing that day,” said T.G, a respondent. He was not alone. Almost half of those who gave feedback were this close to setting their Facebook relationship status to “In an Open Relationship with Sneakers.”

Many of those who wore such classic trainers as Converse or Vans did so regardless of temperature or season. This leads me to my last observation.

3.      The seasons impact shoe choice less than you’d think

Several of my fellow writers wear almost nothing but trainers. Even in winter. Which is somewhat surprising since canvas (which is what most Chuck Taylor-style shoes are made of) gets cold. Some pairs even have small riveted metal rings that let heat out and cold air in. Not exactly what one would call insulated.

Why do we wear what we want to wear, even when it isn’t the best choice for the season?

I think the answer has something to do with Number #1. It also has something to do with the story about my dad I told at the beginning.

We choose what to wear based on how we want to be perceived, how it makes us feel, and what our environment demands. One respondent – of the gang who only wear trainers – wears his Converse because they’re “remarkably comfortable.” Another, a scientist who has spent a lot of time in the field and on his boat, praises the warm and durable Xtratuffs. Many have shoes set aside for what we could call ‘special occasions’, like meetings or church. In short, we want to be comfortable, look good, and take pride in who we are and what we do.

Our shoes tell a story about who we are or at least who we want you to think we are and don’t forget: If your polish your shoes, you’ve got to be alright.