I was serving as a Housemaster in an English boarding school when I finally learned the full importance of shoes. Every night after supper the boys would have an hour to complete their homework and get ready for bed. The bedtime ritual consisted of tidying their dorm space, having a bath or shower, brushing their teeth, cleaning their nails and shining their shoes. Then, pajama clad, with slippered feet and shoes in hand, they lined up at matron’s room for inspection. While sipping a glass of sherry, matron examined their fingernails, checked behind their ears, and took a magnifying glass to their smart black shoes. If the shoes were not shined they went to jail. They did not pass go. They did not collect two hundred dollars.
This little morsel of military discipline drilled into the boys the importance of shoes, for in English society—still so studiously class-ridden, a man was judged by his shoes. Conservative lace-ups neatly shined indicated that you were from a good home, were sent to a good school, and continued to take a natural and healthy pride in your appearance. You could therefore be relied upon. You were “a good sort.” You would get the edge in the job interviews, the best seat at the table, and the introductions to the better sort of girl. The shining of shoes was the shining of one’s character. Polishing your shoes was a way to polish your manners. Ship-shape shoes meant a ship-shape life: neat and clean with everything done and dusted, decently and in order.
Is it any different anywhere? In the United States we seem not to care about such archaic idiosyncrasies of the British Empire. Or do we? Try turning up to your next job interview in da-glo running shoes or a pair of sloppy slip-ons. Would you go out with your best girl to a good restaurant wearing your desert boots? Would you go to a funeral in flip-flops or attend a friend’s nuptials in your Nikes? I think not. You would shoe horn your dogs into wing tips for the wedding. Going to the prom? You’d wear your patent leathers. Is it a summer ball? Wear your brogues. Dining at high table in Cambridge? You’d wear your Oxfords.
Shoes are important and not just for the sartorial snobs among us. We are not hobbits. We clad our feet in suitable styles for the right occasion because we respect ourselves and others. Feet are ugly and we suit them up the best we can not only for protection, but for style. How unfortunate that we have succumbed to a kind of reverse snobbery in which we see how outlandishly ugly our shoes can be. I wonder why people come to church wearing spongy plastic gummy shoes of bright turquoise trimmed in pink… and those are just the boys. Why must the girls wear slender sandals with rhinestone baubles, fur-lined, knee-high boots in the middle of summer or rubber flip-flops in the dead of winter? Where is the sense and style? Why can’t every American have an English matron to do inspection and teach them the importance of shoes?
There are sermons in shoes. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” I would tinker with the prophet’s words and add, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who wear good shoes.” Think how shoes convey character. The friar wears sandals to proclaim his poverty. The discalced friar dispenses with them to show that he is even poorer. The soldier and the cowboy wear their boots, the beadle his buckle. The factory worker’s shoes, like his life, are steel-toed, while the ballerina’s slippers, like her flight, are feather light. The runner clasps the earth with his cleats and the climber the rocks with his rubbery gripping slippers. Meanwhile the diver goes fishy in flippers and the rider goes horsey in boots. Shoes are not only useful. They are an expression of personality, a choice of life, and a summary of purpose.
All the more reason, therefore, to make a small complaint and a modest plea for the return of the proper shoe. By all means let us wear running shoes to run and dancing shoes to dance. Let us wear hiking shoes to hike and biking shoes to bike. Let us sneak around in sneakers and slip into our slippers after a busy day, but let us wear dignified and unostentatious shoes for those times when life demands that we be dignified and unostentatious. Those solid black lace ups are conservative and classic. They are everlasting. They may be somewhat tight. They may be a tad formal, but they never call attention to themselves except for their simple humility.
So when tempted to wear flashy footwear, to slop around in slippers or ramble along in running shoes, let us remember the importance of shoes.
Let us not forget matron and keep our faithful black lace ups shined and ready for inspection.
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