I once watched a film starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley Temple, in which Toni Collette justifies her beautifully extravagant collection of shoes to her equally extravagant and aimless sister by telling her that whenever she feels low or wanted to reward herself, she bought a pair of shoes because ‘food only mades you fatter, clothes never look any good, but shoes always fit. Since then, I have had many a moment of reflection on my own humble collection of 53 pairs of shoes and I have realized that it is true in the truest sense, what she said. I have had mornings where nothing fits me and even then, all I need to take me through the day is a pair of dark kitten heels peeping out of my trousers, knowing that no one can wear them like I can. I have even had wedding ensembles and party outfits planned around the shoes I want to wear. I know my shoes inside out; they are my sole-mates. And I know, being a girl and being a shoe-lover, that every shoe-loving girl shares this special friendship with her shoe collection. And so, I wish to write a little about the fashion trend that has just hit the international footwear kingdom, from the ramps on Milan to the stages in New York and from the exhibits at Seoul (very big market for shoes, indeed) to the decorated windows of the flagship store of Jimmy Choo at Delhi – the ballet flats.
A ballet flat is a shoe with covered or peep-toe design on the vamp (the toe box), a closed back and a very thin, flat sole. While the top fabric can change depending upon the function, the make and even the trend, the sole of ballet flats is mostly flexible rubber or PUC. While it derives its popular name from the similarity it bears to the flat, tight shoes worn by ballerinas, its origins can be traced back to the 15-16 centuries AD, when they were the choice of the common folk, owing to the comfort they could provide. Historically, ballet flats (or dolly shoes, as they are sometimes called) have had a somewhat worrisome relationship with high-heeled shoes. Most shoe ‘designs’ can be traced back to medieval origins and even then, ballet flats were far more popular with both men and women than their other counterparts. Then, they fared battles with stilettos and pumps, sling-backs and wedges et al, and kept disappearing and reappearing at key moments, both on the big screen and the small display windows at shoe shoppes. However, lately, they have made another return under the banner of retro flats and they are all the rage. The reason they have caught my fancy this time is because they seemed to have had a binding and universalizing effect on feet everywhere, unlike any other shoe trend that I have had the privilege to witness in my lifetime.
Say the word ‘diva’ to anyone and ask them the first five words they can think of. The words ‘high heels’ will feature in some or the other order. And that is what the perception has been through the ages. Just like you don’t picture a bald superstar or a singer with a beer belly, you don’t picture a diva or an actress in flat-soled shoes! But now, take another look at haute celebrities from the last season’s balls and galas and you will be amazed at how many of these chic chicas have taken to wearing ballet flats as if they did it all along. Katie Holmes, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian, the Olsen twins, January Jones, Rihanna, Sandra Bullock and Jessica Biel can all be seen shining on the red carpet in their crystal-studded gowns, Swarovski accessories and a wild range of matching ballet flat shoes. Even in films and television, there has been a documented shift from boots and high-heeled pumps to ballet flats as more and more actresses have taken warmly to this comfortable trend. Of course, it has already seen a smorgasbord of cuts and strips and slashes and prints on its rather small palette, (the most recent one being the tiger ballet flat by Christian Louboutin), but the ballet flat is treading on with great flair and élan.
However, I also wish to shed some light on the reception of these shoes in the Indian consumer market and how, despite the warning labels and the ‘how to (pair your ballet flats with every outfit you own)’ videos on youtube.com, we have gotten it horribly, horribly wrong. First, I would like to send a shout out to all the women of this country who think that it is okay to treat your footwear like the bad side of a rotten banana peel and just romp about in unwashed, sick-looking half-broken shoes with only ¾ of their soles remaining – ladies, skip the next pointless parlour visit for a facial and invest in some nice everyday wear Batas. Next, my tweet goes out to those females who think that as long as it is black, they can wear a ballet flat with every article of clothing they own. Wrong again. Black is a colour. Coordinate. And finally, my heartfelt cry is at those girls who have taken it upon themselves to declare ballet flats the next sport shoe of the century. Seriously, have you seen these girls – on the bus, in the subway, in markets and offices, in the metro – wearing their cheap ballet flats with salwar-kameez, ill-fitted trousers and shirt and even, dare I even say it, a saree? I am not saying that it is wrong to wear your choice of clothes or shoes, no sir! I am saying that it is wrong to single-handedly murder a healthy, vivacious trend because you just cannot get it right.
On a more sombre note, I must stress that fashionably speaking, the ballet flat has been designed to highlight a very specific feature of the leg and consequently, of the foot. While its roundness at the toe makes even the largest of feet look sizes smaller and shapelier, its tapering effect on the leg overall gives a lengthening, slimming result to the eye. Logically, the bigger the girth of the leg, the more pressure there is on the ballet flat to perform. And hence, if you are a woman with a prominent calf and ankle, you do not want to start out by wearing ‘slim’ jeans, which are bound to bunch up around very unsightly corners of the leg, and end the line of vision with a flat thump of the ballet shoe. Trust me; you are not doing any favours to your height or your feet’s health! On the other hand, if you are someone with extremely thin calves and legs, you too may want to steer clear of flat shoes because they will not compliment the overall look of your leg, making it look flatter and straighter and not at all curvaceous. Think of a stork or an ostrich trying to prance around in tennis shoes and you will perhaps get an idea. Instead, team your flat shoes with something with a little more flare at the bottom, or even some decorative anklet to take the attention away from the contours of your leg and give it volume. You see, ballet flats or flat pumps are meant for the fit, the athletic, the very toned. This is not criticism. (Trust me when I say that I am not on the other side of the road here!) I am just trying to explain the reasons why some women are able to carry off ballet flats much more naturally than some others and how one can avoid looking like a walking blooper in a shoe ad.
And as a final straw, another by-trend of the ballet flat that I have seen with increasing alarm is the freedom with which women have started wearing these shoes without ever thinking of washing them. Honestly, at one point, I was pushed to go online and Google if there had been some instructions regarding ballet flats being averse to wash and wear or if the trend itself came with standing instructions to use and throw. Foot hygiene is one of the least popular and most important aspects of personal care. There are no such things as bad shoes or bad feet, only bad habits. Not keeping your shoes in separate boxes, not airing them out after a long wear, not cleaning them properly and thoroughly, not maintaining their internal balance of the in-soles are all foolproof formulae of smelly feet and bad posture. And with shoes like ballet flats it is imperative to be careful because one mostly wears them without socks or stockings, for a long time at a stretch and oddly, the shoe does not demand as much attention in maintenance as it does in fashion. I guess it is the underdog retro king of shoes after all.
Anyhow, I hope this little word-shower has helped you in some insignificant way and that your ballet flat-wearing days will be the brighter for it. Remember to care for your shoes as much as you care for how you look in them and the next time you go to your closet to pick out an outfit, do yourself a favour, and pick out your shoes first. It is always easier to go bottoms up!