A couple of months ago or so I bought the loveliest pair of never-been-worn vintage silver pumps, with a low square heel and a bow, at a charity shop in Chelsea for six quid. You can see them in the picture, though they look a bit fucked up now.
I only wore them once and on that occasion it started to rain, as it generally does in London, and within minutes they had essentially dissolved around my feet. Thank God I had other shoes in my bag or I would’ve been barefoot on the wet pavement.
A closer examination revealed that they were only held together with glue, not stitching, and the glue (being at least 40 years old) had no doubt lost a good deal of its stickiness in the intervening decades.
But, I wondered, why were the shoes so perfectly pretty yet so poorly made? And how had they managed to survive so many years without ever having known concrete? Or precipitation?
It was a mystery and remained so for several weeks.
But then, just now actually, I had a sudden memory from my teenage years in LA in the 1980s: there used to be a store on Melrose Avenue, before it became the trendiest shopping street in Southern California and was merely on its way to being cool, called Cowboys and Poodles. This shop specialized in vintage fashions, especially that of the 50s and 60s and they ALWAYS had a selection of the most darlingest never-been-worn shoes from those eras.
Little black flats with teensy buckles by the pointy toe; polka dot fuck-me-in-the-kitchen heels such as Mrs. Cleaver might have worn while whipping up a tuna salad sandwich for “the beave” and that smarmy Eddie Haskell; two-tone lace-up saddle shoes appropriate for cheerleading practice in Smallville – you know the kind of thing.
I will confess that at that age (what age? never mind) I was a bit of a klepto as was the rest of the gang of faggots, freaks, junkies and runaways I lived with in West Hollywood after taking the proficiency test to get the hell out of Beverly Hills High School. We used to fleece that store blind and between us must have made off with at least ten pairs of adorable shoes from Cowboys and Poodles. But as we soon discovered, the shoes didn’t last AT ALL! In fact, they usually disintegrated after a single night out. It’s true that such a night usually involved 5 hours of non-stop dancing under the influence of two hits of LSD, but still. Even though they were essentially free and had been subjected to stress on their virgin outings, we felt a bit ripped off nevertheless. I mean, stealing a pair of shoes is actually a fair bit more difficult, technically speaking, than simply paying for them, with the further disadvantage of them being un-returnable. You can hardly complain about the shoddy quality of ill-gotten shoes. We puzzled over this moral dilemma and in the end just congratulated ourselves for not being such suckers as to fork over the 30 bucks that was the asking price.
Then one day Roscoe, may he rest in peace, announced that he had figured out the mystery: the shoes were all of the same brand and he had worked out that the company was a defunct one that had been dedicated to turning out footwear for the deceased. That’s right – the dead. Apparently, wearing filthy Birkenstocks was just as bad form when leaving this world as when living in it and an entire industry had dedicated itself to solving this problem. So that explained why this company had been manufacturing shoes that were up-to-the-minute fashion-wise, but didn’t have to withstand a whole lot of walking. Well, any walking. The owners of Cowboys and Poodles had presumably stumbled upon a large cache of such footwear, which would further explain why they were totally authentically from a bygone era – not redux – yet without the slightest sign of wear and tear. It also clarified why the shoes were such shit quality, clearly never having been meant to withstand acid frenzied shape-throwing on the dance floors of Hollywood.
This fond reminiscence over, I came back to the present and decided to investigate the maker of my sweet silver prop shoes which according to the script in the insole was a company called Nite-Aires (Made in England). I googled the name and found several other pairs of perfectly intact vintage Nite-Aires similiar to my own on Ebay (coincidentally also priced at 6 quid). Well that certainly seemed like a clue. There were never any very used-looking pairs to be had. Presumably because they fall apart the first time you venture out, the dead not being known for their propensity to take long hikes in brocade slippers.
But I wasn’t able to find anything else specifically about Nite-Aires that would confirm my suspicion that they were indeed designed to be worn in perpetuity, forever unscuffed by pavement.
I did come across some other bizarre and unimportant facts by searching for “shoes” with “funeral” and/or “dead” and/or “footwear”.
Firstly I learned that most people are buried barefoot, or rather most people who answer questions on peer learning exchange and Q&A sites are of the opinion that such is the case. Unless it’s an open casket funeral, in which cases the corpse is typically shod. I guess I can understand that.
Then I came across the odd tale of Mr. Park of Seoul, a 59 year old former used-shoe store owner who was found to be in possession of some 1500 pairs of designer shoes that he had pilfered from the lobbies of funeral parlours. Apparently, it is customary to remove your shoes in such places (and others) in South Korea and so the opportunistic retifist would simply wander in wearing a pair of decaying sandals and then swap them for some nice new Bruno Maglis while the bereaved were distracted by grieving. South Koreans, like the rest of us, often wear their best shoes to funerals (which is strange considering that they drop them off in the lobby) so Park eventually stockpiled a rather enviable collection; weirdly, he didn’t sell them. (It’s tempting to invoke Imelda Marcos at some point when retelling Mr. Park’s story, and many have done so, but I will resist, though I did want to at least mention her so people wouldn’t think I hadn’t thought of it.)
He’s far from the only shoe snatcher in town, in fact it’s a big problem in Seoul (maybe they should rethink the leaving them at the door thing) but he’s surely the most prolific who’s ever been caught. Because it’s a freaky story, the kind reported in side columns with titles like “News of the Weird” or “Funny Old World”, it can’t fail to raise a bit of a chuckle, but if you think about it, it’s a really mean, mean thing to do. Looking back on the (too many) funerals I’ve attended over the years, I can think of few things that could possibly screw up what wasn’t a great day to begin with, more than having to go home barefoot. In my case, that would probably be drunk and barefoot. (Actually I think that’s happened. But not because someone stole my shoes.) At least when I snatched shoes they were from an overpriced shop that was ripping off the public and not from a weeping widow. I realize that sounds like a high-minded justification of shoplifting and so I admit that I wasn’t acting out of lofty principles at the time. (But it did make me feel better about not feeling guilty anyway when I found out that the shoes should never have been sold for use by live humans.)
That was an interesting digression but unrelated to my original query. Ultimately “burial shoes” was the jackpot search string that took me to the blog of Christine Quigley (Quigley’s Cabinet) which confirmed that yes, there was indeed an industry dedicated to the peculiar art of making shoes for those who will never walk in them. Roscoe was right.
Quigley also confirmed that in the past it was customary to bury people barefoot, but that this was more to do with the cost of shoes than any other consideration. There are some great pictures on her site, but I was a bit disappointed to find that they were all far more antique than either those I once pilfered from Cowboys and Poodles or my 6 quid silver Nite-Aires. Looking up “1950s burial shoes” didn’t generate anything useful, especially as Google kept stubbornly insisting I was looking for “bridal shoes”, and I wasn’t able to find out any further information about this niche market, such as whether it still existed. I guess things are generally such bad quality nowadays anyway that you don’t have to buy shoes specifically intended for dead people if you want something that will deteriorate instantly.
But Nite-Aires does sound like a sort of grimly jokey name for the shoes of eternal sleep doesn’t it? If anyone knows for sure, do get in touch. Meanwhile, I’m putting superglue on my shopping list.
Because they really are awfully cute shoes!
Errata Et Addendum!
Soon after I posted this, my mother read it and called me and said, “that was great Diana, but it would’ve been even funnier if you’d told what really happened..”
I was flummoxed, and slightly annoyed, “what do you mean what “really” happened?! That IS what happened!”
“No, I know, I mean about the shoes…” she continued. My mother has an alternately aggravating and endearing way about not quite being clear about the point that she’s trying to make.
“Well, what do you mean ‘about the shoes’ – the whole thing is about the shoes!?” I persisted.
“No, I mean when they fell apart!” she explained not terribly helpfully.
“Right…” I patiently cajoled, “…and…”
“Well you should’ve said about the white wedgies that were 2 sizes too small!” she triumphantly exclaimed!
“WHAT ARE YOU ON ABOUT?!”
I’m pretty sure I was shouting.
Must. Watch. That.
“You did not have any other pair of shoes in your bag!” she continued to correct. “You didn’t even make it to the end of the road when you left here, don’t you remember?”
Now it is rather embarrassing to admit that I had completely forgotten something that my mother remembered, however, when she said that last bit, I have to confess my curiosity was piqued. The truth is, I hadn’t remembered how I’d dealt with the situation when the shoes fell apart, and had sort of made up that bit of the post (about having another pair of shoes in my bag) because I needed to move on and tell the rest of the story. I didn’t think it was that important. But in fact, as she went on to remind me, it was true that I had not even made it to the Fulham road from her flat, a distance of some 120 paces, before the silver shoes deconstructed in the rain. What I had then apparently done was go back to her place, where there were other, more rain-proof shoes.
None belonging to me however, which is a new bit of mystery: presumably I’d had shoes when I went to the charity shop and bought the Nite-Aires, but what had I done with them? Were they old shoes that I had thrown away at some point? Or maybe I did have another pair of shoes at my mum’s but they would’ve messed up my outfit or something? I seem to remember being on my way to a party and think I was wearing a pale pink silk crepe dress, that looked so gorgeous with the silver shoes! My guess is that if I did have other shoes at my Mum’s they were either black motorcycle boots or running shoes with spaghetti sauce stains on the toes.
I really do not recall, and she couldn’t remember that bit either, but what definitely DID happen, is that I ended up borrowing some shoes from my Mum: you guessed it – white wedgies, with a cork soul and an open toe and sling back.
My mother’s feet are 2 sizes smaller than mine.
The only reason this was able to work was because of the open heel and toe. If I strapped the buckle tight enough it secured my foot to the base in an immovable way, thereby ensuring that only part of my heel, and the very barest sliver of my big toe were not flush with the borders of the cork sole (it was all coming back to me now). It really didn’t look like the shoes were 2 sizes too small, and despite the pain and the inner knowledge that white open-toe wedges were inappropriate for the weather and didn’t look nearly as sweet with the dress as the goddamn silver Nite-Aires, I set forth again.
I told my mother that I would amend the post to include this important detail that she had remembered, but she said, “oh, don’t bother, I just thought it would be funnier that way..”
So of course I had to add it: in case she was right on both counts.