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Confessions of a Shoe Addict
by Adjoa Hennessey
How can you have 100 pairs of shoes and not know it?
Especially if you live in a one-bedroom flat in an ex-council block.
I’ll tell you how. The way you do it is to secrete the shoes around the place the way an alcoholic hides bottles. Heaped at the bottom of a wardrobe. Piled up in a cupboard and boxed under the bed. When there’s no more space at home, you stash other pairs elsewhere. In bin bags marked ‘For Ebay’ in the pram shed. Stuffed into an office drawer and, below the desk, in a cardboard box and two bulging bags for life.
Some of this footwear is beautiful. I especially love the tan Chia Miharas that make me dream I can dance, L’Autre Chose slingbacks in soft turquoise with brown stitching that feel perfectly 50s, and pointed satin courts dyed Tiffany blue to match a mid-century bridesmaid’s dress. Some of it is beautifully ugly, like the sheepskin-lined Clarks moonboots I look forward to wearing each winter. But a lot of them are boring, and the over-riding feeling is not joy in a well-curated collection of beloved artefacts. The overwhelming feeling is a contradictory mix of indifference and anxiety. I’ll explain later.
It all started around 2000 when I worked near a lot of shoe shops. I was editing stories about fashion and earning a bit more money – an unfortunate combination for anyone with particular tendencies. To keep the nascent habit in check, and the shame, I made a bargain with myself. The deal was that every time I bought a new pair, I would atone by giving whatever they cost to the Anti-Slavery Society. And for a time, I kept to it. It was a bit like the alcoholic’s bargain: if they can have this one last drink, one last night’s drinking, they will never touch another drop. Like the alcoholic, I fell off the wagon. At some point, I stopped the charity donations. When and why, I can’t remember; perhaps they began to cost me too much. I kept buying the shoes, though.
Why shoes? They had a special value when I was a child. For a time, when it was just mum and me, we didn’t have a lot of money – and shoes, measured in clothing coupons, were especially expensive. Those we did buy had to be practical and sturdy, particularly as they were certain soon to be too small. They would be worn, not until you didn’t want to wear them anymore, but until you couldn’t wear them anymore. There was no putting a pair aside for a special occasion, or buying something just to match this or that shade of skirt.
For some of my classmates, it was different. When we were nine or ten, there was a vogue for patent buckle-ups in an impossibly exotic range of shades, stitched and studded with flowers that had no use but decoration. At certain intervals, friends would turn up with their latest pairs and tales of queuing outside an emporium called Grant’s of the Walworth Road. It was unfathomable to me, and wonderful, that parents would invest time and cash in buying kids these pretty, impractical products. What would compel a grown-up to trifle with fashion this way? It wasn’t that they were rich. They were council tenants, like us. But in our house, where you’d find a women’s group in the living room or architecture students in the garage-studio, a girl’s footwear was designed for action. Kickers – non-slip soles, lace-ups – were perfect. How could you tear about the adventure playground in patent party shoes?
From kindness and exasperation, and perhaps because there was a little more money around, mum eventually gave in. We made treasured trips to Dolcis and Ravel on Brixton Road, coming home with a pretty – yes, pretty – pink mary-janes with the hint of a heel (it was in these that I slid over racing for third base in rounders). The crepe sole T-bar in blue-grey nubuck with a floral pattern punched out of the upper – I slept with them by my bed the first night I brought them home.
Psychologically, the 100 pairs of shoes make a kind of sense. It can’t be that uncommon for adults to build an abundance of something that was scarce when they were little kids with no control. For some people, it’s food or cash. For me, it’s footwear – the certainty of having to hand whatever I want in that mood and that moment.
This is where the indifference and the anxiety come in.
The indifference goes like this. If I have so many pairs that that I can forget I ever bought a particular style or that I already have a pair almost identical – perhaps the heel is a millimetre higher or the vamp is one vital millimeter lower – that’s evidence of abundance. If there are enough shoes, so many that you lose count, there is enough of everything.
Then there’s the anxiety.
Some people who buy a lot of shoes will pay £500 or £1,000 for a pair they love. The anxiety would never let me do that. It’s there whether I’m trying on synthetic H&M flats or Italian tan leather gaucho boots. Whether the price is £9.99 or £250, the self-interrogation is the same.
What if you don’t really like them? What if they seem to fit but they don’t actually fit? What if you never wear them and they stay unworn in the wardrobe – evidence of fecklessness, a pristine rebuke? What if one day you need that £250, or that tenner, really need it, for something that matters?
There are elements of hoarding, along with echoes of compulsion and addiction. I still have some pairs from 20 years ago, when I struck that bargain with myself. The subverted Dorothy shoes – black glittery kitten heels – feel a bit wrong two decades on (did square toes really look normal?) but they stay, long unworn, under the bed. Innumerable, identical flats, the kind that come on a hanger, accumulate year after year after year. Designer or disposable, they’re treated the same. Why throw them away if they’re not worn out? And how can they get worn out if you have 100 pairs?
Yet, if buying shoes is an addiction, it is a habit that has its upside. I know for sure it will never have the power to do what addiction to alcohol can do to a parent. Buying shoes will never cost me my job, my partner and children, followed by the roof over my head. It’s not going to rob me of innate gifts, like talent and ambition and, at the very end, my liver and my last, most tenacious relatives. It won’t put me in a suburban crematorium at the age of 52.
So it’s all a bit uncomfortable and a little bit cramped. I look forward to the day – and it might happen when none of this matters anymore. But for now, for the moment, I’m learning to live with the guilt, the anxiety and the 100 pairs of shoes.
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