I’m a geek, not a fashion plate. I don’t think about shoes a lot, but I know what I like — and when I do think about shoes, I’m profoundly grateful for some of the changes that have come about in my lifetime. I’m thinking, more than anything else, of the way athletic shoes have taken over the world.
When I was a kid back in the 1960s and early 1970s, “shoes” still meant, basically, “hard leather oxfords”. Ugly stiff things with a high-maintainence finish that would scuff if you breathed on them. What I liked was sneakers. But in those bygone days you didn’t get to wear sneakers past a certain age, unless you were doing sneaker things like playing basketball. And I sucked at basketball.
I revolted against the tyranny of the oxford by wearing desert boots, which back then weren’t actually boots at all but a kind of high-top shoe with a suede finish and a grip sole. These were just barely acceptable in polite company; in fact, if you can believe this, I was teased about them at school. It was a more conformist time.
I still remember the first time I saw a shoe I actually liked and wanted to own, around 1982. It was called an Aspen, and it was built exactly like a running shoe but with a soft suede upper. Felt like sneakers on my feet, looked like a grownup shoe from any distance. And I still remember exactly how my Aspens — both of them — literally fell apart at the same moment as I was crossing Walnut Street in West Philly. These were not well-made shoes. I had to limp home.
But better days were coming. In the early 1990s athletic shoes underwent a kind of Cambrian explosion, proliferating into all kinds of odd styles. Reebok and Rockport and a few other makers finally figured out what I wanted — athletic-shoe fit and comfort with a sleek all-black look I could wear into a client’s office, and no polishing or shoe trees or any of that annoying overhead!
I look around me today and I see that athletic-shoe tech has taken over. The torture devices of my childhood are almost a memory. Thank you, oh inscrutable shoe gods. Thank you Rockport. It’s not a big thing like the Internet, but comfortable un-fussy shoes have made my life better.
Shoes are basically just a technical improvement upon our delicate, sensitive, and often inadequate human feet. They allow us to walk comfortably through freezing cold snow and burning hot sand. They protect us from pricks, cuts, muck, and critters — everywhere from mountain paths to city streets. They allow us to stand, run, or walk for hours on end. They compensate for troubles caused by defects, disease, and trauma. They protect our cute little piggies from the howling horror of a sudden stub against unforgiving furniture.
Like so many other fruits of capitalism, modern shoes are not properly appreciated, even though they make a huge difference in quality of life. If you cannot imagine the torture of wearing wooden clogs while performing backbreaking labor out in your fields, you have a long line of curious scientists and greedy capitalists to thank. Through centuries of scientific inquiry into human physiology, developments in synthetic materials, advances in manufacturing techniques, and so more, they made your comfortable feet possible.