Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fewer and better shoes

This year, one of my New Year's resolutions is to buy fewer and better shoes. In the past I have chosen not to spend money on shoes because I've observed that no matter how much money a pair of shoes cost, I tend to grind the soles away and tear the insoles. So why not buy ten pairs of shoes for $100 rather than one?

However, I am sick of having a wardrobe stuffed with canvas or vinyl flats that have holes in the soles or are coming apart at the toes. I'm sick of the way that cheap shoes always have uncomfortable, pancake-thin soles that make walking a misery. I'm sick of spending more money on insoles, glue and gaffer tape than I spent on the damn shoes in the first place. And I am sick of the dismay that comes from realising, every time it rains, that I don't own any shoes that won't leak.

I've spent some time thinking about what constitutes 'value' in clothes shopping: for instance, a few years ago when I was dissed about my beloved handbag, Stam. Interestingly, my knock-off Stam bag got so much use it wore out and I had to replace it. I decided that leather would be more durable than vinyl, but oddly enough you just can't buy a knock-off Stam made from leather – the real Marc Jacobs bags are leather and the knock-offs are always 'leatherette', 'leather-like material' or other euphemisms for vinyl.

So in mid-2008, I bought a real Stam, even though I don't really give a shit about branded merchandise. What has taken me by surprise is the affective bond I have with this inanimate object. The design is not an 'It bag' any more, but I love Stam, and when it wears out, I'll buy myself another one.

But I have digressed. To recap, here are a few different ideologies of value, which sometimes intersect and complement each other.

Brand-led value: Some people believe that they're getting the best value by purchasing prominent brands or designers who act as stylistic innovators, gatekeepers of quality and markers of authenticity. If these brands are expensive, brand-led consumers reason that "you get what you pay for". My brother, for instance, always buys designer merchandise and finds cheaper, unbranded or knock-off alternatives offensive.

Material value: Some materials, or proportions of materials, have been consensually allocated a higher exchange-value. For instance, the 'thread count' of bedsheets, or the presence of 'Egyptian cotton', is now a marker of 'better quality' sheets. Right now, natural fabrics are deemed better quality than synthetics – garments are advertised as being 'cotton rich', or '100% silk', and leather is better than PVC or vinyl – although historically, synthetic fabrics have been greeted as desirable innovations.

Price value: In this ideology, the cheapest (or most discounted) goods are the best. It prioritises 'bargains' and getting more for your money, and celebrates sourcing items from factory or warehouse outlets, discount malls, VIP sales and markets, as well as through shopping at stores known for offering super-cheap prices.

Fashion value: This ideology prizes owning only items that are 'on-trend': on the leading edge of the fashion cycle. Purchases are frequent and items are turned over quickly in order to maintain maximum fashionability. Items can be very cheap (as in 'fast fashion' chain stores) or very expensive (as in designer ranges), and fashion-led consumers always have their eye on particular, coveted future purchases.

Classicism value: This ideology deliberately opts out of the fashion system and considers it vulgar to chase trends. Rather, it's interested in 'elegance' and 'chic'. These qualities can be attained by developing a repertoire of plain garments that have become consensually deemed 'classics' – usually through their appearances in classic Hollywood cinema or through being favoured by fashion icons. Little black dresses, ballet flats, beige trench coats, striped Breton T-shirts, blue jeans and 'crisp' white shirts are all classic garments.

Ethical value: For some shoppers, paying attention to ethics is the paramount consideration. This can mean being 'thrifty' by buying fewer items and re-using or altering existing garments, avoiding cheap items which are likely to have been produced by sweated labour, choosing environmentally sustainable materials and supply chains, or favouring local and independent designers over big global brands.

Affective value: While the other ideologies each have their own affects (from moral conviction to glamour), affect-led shoppers tend to buy things based primarily on how the items make them feel. A fluffy scarf feels lovely nestled against the cheek; comfortable shoes offer instant relief when tried on in the shop. Bright colours cheer you up; sparkly things make you feel rich, or that you'll attract the gaze of others.

My own shopping decisions have mainly been a combination of price and classicism value – not necessarily because I prize the 'classic' aesthetic, but because I believe that when you buy plain, simple clothes, it's less obvious how little you paid for them. As I've mentioned, I also tend to buy many identical, cheap items in the belief that this is 'good value'.

But my 2011 shoe resolution sees me shifting priorities to a combination of classicism, affective and material value, downgrading the importance of price. The idea is to possess fewer shoes, but to buy only comfortable shoes made of leather, in styles I'm 100 per cent happy with. So I'm going to throw out the worst of the current canvas ballet flats. And when I'm in a shop and get excited about some hipster plimsolls that cost $5, or when a pair of shoes is almost but not quite what I'm after, I will say to myself, "Fewer and better shoes, Mel!"

I have also – embarrassingly! – decided to invest in some 'sockettes' or 'footlets' – those shoe-liners designed to be worn with bare legs to prevent you sweating in and stinking out your shoes. I've decided that it will prolong the life of my shoes never to wear them without socks.

Damn, I've written so much and haven't even really touched on the sexist notion that all women fetishise shoes and love shopping for them, which is absolutely at odds with my own experience. Another post, perhaps.


Belinda said...

Interesting read Mel! I think it's also worth mentioning plain old functional value... The value attributed to a garment/object by the extent to which it fulfills its intended purpose- i.e. a winter jacket that keeps you warm, a pair of shoes that protect your feet properly? I'm also interested in what you said about the process by which something becomes a classic. Have you written anything more or read anything you would recommend along those lines?

Mel said...

Functional value is absolutely legit – when I think about the cardigan I bought because I was cold, or the gumboots I bought because it was raining…

I'd say that hagiography is a key process by which certain things become 'iconic', so reading between the lines in those books idolising particular famous women's style, or books celebrating particular designers or objects, would give you some insight into how ordinary and plain becomes 'classic'.

I recommend Linda Grant's book The Thoughtful Dresser – it's an interesting, easy-to-read mix of cultural analysis, fashion history and personal anecdote. Grant is actually quite scathing about the way that women 'of a certain age' are exhorted to wear classics. She sees classics as boring, designed to erase the sexuality and personality of older women. I don't necessarily agree, but then hey, I'm not 50+.

Brittney said...

forgive my 2-year-old-sounding response to your post, but...i'm with you on the whole "buy fewer & better shoes" thing. i'm getting to that point in my life where i want to chant that mantra about EVerything in my wardrobe. i've existed on clearance-bargain-junk from then until now, and i say: no more. i want stuff to last. i want to love it. i want it to flatter. i don't want to house (and force myself to wear) crap just because it was cheap.
so. i enjoyed reading your post. thanks.
-brittney (my daily outfit post, which was actually the catalyst in my discovering my new mindset)