How Much Are Those Manolos in the Window?

One man’s quest to understand the female obsession with footwear

Sometime in the late ’80s, I was kicked back on the couch, watching television with my girlfriend. It was a documentary about fascism, and there was a shot of Mussolini standing on a balcony, watching wave after wave of his soldiers parade by in perfect formation.

“Wow,” my girlfriend said.

“Yeah,” I said, blasé. An avid World War II buff, I was an old hand at watching these documentaries, and to me, this was pretty much a standard shot of any dictator’s rise to power. Hitler, Stalin, Tojo — they all had a thing for watching parades from a balcony.

“Look at that,” she said, her voice full of wonder as she leaned in closer to the screen. I looked at her, surprised that this image had such an effect. “Look at them all.”

“Yeah.”

“Look at all those Italian boots,” she said. “Do you think they’re all handmade?”

What is with women and shoes? How do intelligent, thoughtful females, who are well-adjusted in every other way, wind up obsessing about footwear? Why does a young woman studying for an MBA think the most intriguing fact about Mussolini’s rise to power is where his soldiers got their boots made, and why did my sister, a veterinarian, once drive into a ditch because she was trying to read a billboard about a shoe sale? Maybe the answer contains a key to understanding the opposite sex, a project I’m always working on.

“Four.” “Five.” “I don’t know … seven, maybe?” These are my male friends answering the simple question, “How many pairs of shoes do you own?” My neighbor Tim points down at his sneakers, broken and crusty with age, and says simply, “These.”

Okay, Tim needs a job, but the point is that the male perspective on shoes is that they are much like can openers or DVD players. They are utilitarian, made to serve a purpose. Whether or not they are fashionable is a question we would have to consult a woman to answer, because there is no intrinsic knowledge of the subject. And if the answer were no, it wouldn’t be that much of an issue. If they were comfortable, they would probably get worn anyway.

“Fifty.” “Oh, about 30 or 40.” “Hmmmm … do sneakers count?” “Two hundred and some.” “Five hundred.” These are women answering the same question. I’m awestruck, having had no idea the difference was so pronounced. I always thought that when women confessed to me a fondness for footwear, they knew it was a confession of a pathology, like admitting they compulsively adopted cats or were addicted to painkillers. But to the women I ask, stockpiling shoes is the most natural thing in the world.

“We’ve gone from Imelda to Sarah Jessica Parker,” Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati tells me. Vanesse, 53, is a literary publicist in Overbrook Farms who once walked into a Lord & Taylor shoe sale and walked out with 12 pairs of boots. Imelda, Lloyd-Sgambati explains, the wife of deposed Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, supposedly stockpiled more than a thousand pairs of shoes, and when the media broke the story in the late ’80s, we were supposed to perceive this as decadence. But that has turned around, spurred by Parker’s portrayal of a shameless shoe shopper in the HBO series Sex and the City. With a taste for wildly expensive Manolo Blahniks, Parker became an icon of feminist materialism. “Nobody feels guilty about shoe shopping anymore,” Lloyd-Sgambati says.