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BY DESIGN : The Shoe Next Door Is Still the Mary Jane


I don't have any blue suede shoes you're liable to step on, but I'd like to stick up for Mary Janes, now that these newly fashionable "little girl" shoes with a strap across the instep are being criticized by some as inappropriately childish for women.

I first fell in love with Mary Janes at age 10 or so, when my feet were trying to inflict permanent damage on a pair of parent-mandated lace-up Oxfords. In the hazy scenario Mom outlined, someday I would be able to cast off this supportive but ugly chrysalis and happily flaunt the high heels that magically transformed girls into women.

Long a voracious reader, I was intrigued for a while by stories about mermaids, who, along with their other virtues, had neatly solved the shoe problem. But when I opened Frances Hodgson Burnett's "The Secret Garden," my eye went directly to the illustrations of the young heroine--conveniently named Mary--who wore Mary Janes.

With their rounded toes, scooped-out tops, slim straps, pretty buckles and curving, flat heels, these gleaming black patent leather shoes were objects of intense desire. I imagined myself wearing them, skipping merrily to school, nonexistent pigtails flying. (Mom also had a thing about short hair.)

For weeks, I kept a bookmark on the illustration showing the best view of the most perfect shoes in the world. Next to Mary Janes, even Cinderella's transparent pumps paled. After weeks of my pleading, my mother finally broke down and drove me to the local shoe store. Did I take the book along to compare? Probably not; the Platonic image of Mary Janes had become permanently imprinted on my brain.

Alas, the store carried only a clunky country cousin of the magic shoes. They were heavy, dark red, verging on the dread oxblood, and they had a thick strap. But my mother was disinclined to pursue the Holy Grail of Mary Janehood any further. Back home, I compared my clumsily shod foot to the spare, lithe image in the book illustrations and sighed.

By the time I got to college, at last old enough--and sufficiently removed from Mom's watchful eye--to wear any shoes I pleased, high heels were Out. I spent years in little boys' lace-up boots, the Doc Martens precursor for young American women with small feet. Once you developed a small, permanent callous about two inches above the ankle, you could walk comfortably for miles, even in snow country. Plus, my boyfriend thought the boots were cute.

Back in the real world of cities, dull, entry-level jobs and massive insecurity, I finally became hooked by high heels. Perched painfully on stalks of leather-wrapped manufactured materials, mashing the tiny, slippery plastic heel tip into oblivion after just a week or so, I grew not only in physical stature but in fantasies of authority and worldliness. I tried not to be rattled when male strangers offered unaccustomed compliments.

Sure, I sat down a lot and begged off errands involving more than a block of walking. But I began to crave ever higher heels. Frequent observation of stylish women--I had graduated from book illustrations by then--suggested that the goal was to show off as much as possible of the inside of the heel, from a standing position.

Finally, my feet just gave out. Every time I wore heels, a sharp pain radiated through the area my dance teacher used to call the metatarsal. My shoes spent more time off my feet than on. I had become Immobile Woman, a slave to vanity.

Years passed. I experimented with the new "comfort" pumps (too ugly), sliver-heeled flats, briefly in vogue a few years ago (not enough of a boost for a petite woman) and an assortment of low-heeled but uncomfortably pointy-toed alternatives. The return of the workmanlike boot was a happy event, but mine feel too hot and bulky to wear all day.

So you can imagine my delight when the shoe of shoes finally joined the fashion party this year. And guess what? Mary Janes are still the best. They can be both feminine and cool, both sexy and comfortable. They look good on long, skinny feet and short, stubby ones. You can get them in weighty, rubber-soled, "downtown" versions or in sleek, ladylike styles.

They come in regular leather, patent leather and imitation leather, but black is the color. Some actually have high heels--but always reassuringly chunky ones that let you shift your weight with impunity. The strap keeps them securely on your foot. (I used to step right out of my pumps.) And you can buy 'em for $30 or $130.

So, please, no more of this silly talk about how Mary Janes are part of the infantilization of women's wear, along with such other beloved (and flattering!) items as mini skirts and tiny sweaters. So long as we don't sit in the dopey, knock-kneed positions of the models in the women's magazines, we will look every bit as wise and worldly as we are. But we will feel just a tiny bit younger, prettier and fleeter with those fond tokens of girlhood strapped to our feet.

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