My secret wish, should I ever become fabulously wealthy, is to have my shoes custom made. No matter how perfectly a pair of store-bought shoes fit, it only fits one foot perfectly. I suspect I am not alone in this minor asymmetry.
And yet, according to Rachelle Bergstein in Women From the Ankle Down, we have it pretty good now. It is only since the mid-nineteenth century that left and right shoes were differentiated, and then only for custom-made shoes. Most people had to wait until the dawn of the twentieth century to be able to buy ready-made pairs in which the left and right shoes weren't identical.
To me, this is the most remarkable thing about the the social history of shoes - that some people are willing to spend $500 for a pair of shoes that aren't even custom-made to their own feet. But that's one of the points of the book - that the history of women's shoes in the 20th century in America is about politics and psychology and feminism and more - but it's not about comfort.
Looking to movies, television, and comic books, Bergstein examines how shoes signal more about the woman than do her clothes or her hair or what she says. While Bergstein stays on the topic of shoes (for the most part), the conversation ranges widely. We learn the story of shoemaker and designer Salvatore Ferragamo. The ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz make several appearances. We find out that Wonder Woman's boots were originally sandals. Jane Fonda and her workout videos are in here, as well as Sean Penn's slacker character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. You really can learn a lot about people from the shoes they wear.
My favorite, and perhaps the most telling, story in the book is at the end, past the actual text of the book, in an author's note, in which Bergstein describes an uncomfortable encounter with a border guard on the way to Toronto from New York. On the way back though, when she tells the border guard (this time a woman) she'd been doing research at the shoe museum there, the guard is fascinated by the idea of a shoe museum and that Bergstein is writing a book about shoes. The power of women bonding over shoes transcends even border security.