Monthly Archives: August 2011

If we’re to be perfectly frank with ourselves, the Jeffrey Campbell Lita bootie is one of the ugliest shoes in creation. If not the ugliest. It’s a vamped up monstrosity that the Bride of Frankenstein would resist wearing. They’re categorically unflattering, make a peculiar clomping sound, and give the wearer an awkward, unsteady gait. Despite these shortcomings, the boot is easily one of the most adopted styles to come out in the past couple of years. A quick Youtube search produces over 60 videos (most of them in the haul genre) of young women espousing the shoes’ virtues. One video has in excess of 6,500 views.

What concerns me is the fact that I find these modified clodhoppers to be cute and was consider buying them for a minute. What stopped me is the fact that I think they’ve reached their saturation point. They’re too special for so many people to be owning them. But the benefit of increased height and the comfort of (an extreme) interior platform caught my attention for a moment. I’m honest enough with myself to admit that I own several pieces that a majority of the population would find ugly. Even I find them ugly. But like the JC Litas, there’s something appealing enough that draws me back to wearing them over and over again. 

Undoubtedly the shoe’s popularity has been propelled by the personal style blogger. Before this era of the shopper as sensei, the style may have not have gained this level of notoriety, as a great deal of what appears in magazine editorials is driven by advertising dollars. As was the case with the Youtube search, typing “Lita” “blog” and “Jeffrey Campbell” yields results for days. Since the personal style blogger has been elevated to a sort of ombudsman of fashion, they have made it ok to wear this cement block on stilts. 

Earlier this year I presented a paper at the Florida Consortium for Women’s and Gender Studies Conference on how women use dress to modify their bodies and repel potentially propel others, whether intentionally or subconsciously. For me, anything that I find ugly and still insist on wearing is based out of a jolie laide concept. Something so unattractive that it’s alluring. The Lita is so uniquely ugly, I can’t stop looking at it. In Why Women Wear What They Wear, Sophie Woodward writes that the “sensual relationship to items of clothing means that often women are unable to verbalize why it is they love an item of clothing so much.”

Due to the stalwart loyalty towards the Lita, it’s no longer relegated to distressed black or butterscotch-colored leather. There’s a style for every foot of every persuasioncrushed velvet, a splattered Pollack pastiche, and even a style for the patriot. While the Lita may not replace Keds or Tretorns as a closet staple, it’s not a fad that’s going to clomp away quietly. For some Lita laughs, check out Who Stole My Litas. 

via Ebay

In grade six I started attending a private day school. Since navy jumpers were the dress code for the lower school, accessories played a more pronounced role in our restricted wardrobes. For footwear, saddle oxfords were required, but as long as they were black and white, there was a bit of room for interpretation. Most of the girls had shoes from Capezio, Kinney or Buster Brown. I remember one particularly tall and athletic fifth-grader managed to score some Nike versions.

During my first semester my mom and I decided on a pair of the Capezios. There were two options for the black section of the oxford, either plain leather or simulated snake skin. I went with the former, but soon regretted getting the Capezios in the first place. When I started school, I realized that most of the girls bought their shoes from Kinney. They were sharper and cuter. Despite being my size, the Capezio versions looked like I was wearing a pair of yachts on my feet. By the spring semester, I made my way over to Kinney after convincing my mother that the Capezios weren’t working out size-wise.

By this time I was also fully aware of how girls throughout the school placed a special emphasis on bags, shoes, scrunchies, jewelry and colored rubber bands for braces as the sole means of identity construction. Since I’d received some birthday money I decided to use it towards my next accessory purchase: a Liz Claiborne bag with the multiple triangles. Since the brand was a formidable component for the working woman from the 70s through the early 90s, the accessories inevitable trickled down to her daughter.

Fortunately, I had a cousin who worked at the Jordan Marsh in the Palm Beach Mall and he was able to get the bag down to $65 with his discount. The next day I wore my purse so proudly, with its long strap, pink canvas and ecru triangles, my head nearly popped off my neck from an enlarged ego. But I needed to drive home the point further. The bag needed to be distinguished from the others. I’d conspicuously left the hang tags on the bag to showcase its newness. Before I even made it to homeroom, a classmate advised me to remove them because they looked ridiculous.

Although embarrassed, this minor infraction didn’t keep me down for too long. In fact, before class even started I designated myself the counterfeit police. At the time there were several knockoff versions of the ubiquitous bags. Instead of the triangles, the step and repeat pattern was an angled square that looked like a modified diamond. I proceeded to tell my classmates who owned this bag (which was just as popular as the Liz Claiborne version at a quarter of the price) that they were wearing fakes. My BFF Mary dismissively said she didn’t care. I had conveniently forgotten that my official purse for the third grade was a child-size Gucci knockoff littered with the letter “S” as opposed to the letter “G.

In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel writes that  “often the identities we express with our aesthetic choices are not those we have but those we desire.” In my quest to acclimate, I was gauche (hang tags), rude (sorry Mary!), and hypocritical (Succi anyone?). By the start of grade seven, my pink had succumbed to wear and tear and was looking rather ratchet. I eventually moved on to an Esprit bucket bag the size of John Goodman, then a canvas Esprit tote, then a multi-color pleather backpack, and finally ending my secondary school career with a non-descript black JanSport knapsack that I bought from a street vendor in Washington Heights while visiting family during the summer. In retrospect, I unknowingly purchased a knockoff. Bag karma.

via Wikipedia

Last night I was heading downtown on the E when I decided that I hadn’t been to Century 21 in a while. In most cities, Century 21 represents a real estate franchise. For New York and New Jersey residents, it’s a department store with steep markdowns on high-end designer and brand name pieces. In the past I’ve gorged on Margiela, Costume National and Yves Saint Laurent. I end up returning about half the items I buy after getting home and realizing I just purchased them because the price was right, not because they suited me. It would be disingenuous not to mention the blue nylon Moschino jacket from the early 2000s that was too Tony Monero or the Vivienne Westwood wrap dress with the multiple strings and holes I couldn’t figure out how to get into. 

There’s a reason why I don’t go often. It’s incredibly congested with merchandise and pushy shoppers. A lot of the red-vested employees clearly look as if they’d rather be anywhere else. Working retail on your feet for 9 hours a day is brutal enough, but in a cluttered environment with thankless customers, it only adds to their respective, permanent sourpuss mugs.

There is one area that isn’t as egregious as the rest of the store—the women’s designer shoe section in the basement. There is still the proverbial pushing and stomping over fallen merchandise, but it’s a bit easier to navigate than the first, second and third floors. In fact, it’s so inviting (relatively speaking), even rodents can’t resist the lure of the floor. During last night’s visit I saw the world’s largest cucaracha attempting to try on a pair of shoes. This roach was the size of a McMansion, but she went from section to section like the rest of us trying to find the best deal. She passed on the Dries Van Noten platforms that had been reduced to $99…perhaps because they were missing a necessary strap that used to be attached to them. Unlike a lot of the women down there, the roach never reached over anyone to grab a shoe. She went about her business without obstructing anyone’s view of the rows and rows of shoes.

The same can’t be said for a young woman with a bulging backpack. It’s not uncommon for a shopper to get inappropriately close in order to take a closer look at a set of pumps you’re standing next to. But I draw the line when someone reaches over. I was pawing a pair of Rag and Bone wedges when the mountain hiker in a sundress extended her arm in an Inspector Gadget manner and reached over me. I advised her that she could have said “excuse me” because clearly she’d forgotten or was never taught proper discount store shopping etiquette in the first place. When she asked “who me?”, I answered in a “DUH” tone and said “Yeah YOU.” What kind of Who Stole the Cookie From the Cookie Jar foolishness was she keen on pulling? What would be her next response? “Couldn’t be”?

Environments like Century and sample sales bring out the worst in consumers. There’s often disorganization because the items have been picked over or there’s too much product and limited customer service. The incentive of a special piece—a special piece at 80% off—leads some people to leave their manners at the door. I remember going to the Prada sample sale in the summer of 2006 and was shocked that a mother had left her baby in a stroller nestled in the corner while she shopped the floor.

There’s a great deal of personal value attributed to high-end pieces. When we’re able to score them at a fraction of their street value, we feel smarter than the average consumer but,  in our heads, we’re permitted the same elevated status. In Reforming Women’s Fashion, Patricia A. Cunningham writes that, “Not only is clothing important to denote group membership, but in many ways it expresses women’s sense of self-worth, and clearly it fulfills a fantasy of achieving the American dream of wealth and prosperity.”

Linking dress and self-worth isn’t inherently American. Most cultures place value in some form or another in dress and adornment. What is unique is the sense of accumulation. Century caters to our need for excess, a good deal and instant gratification. If a cucaracha is able to go unnoticed while zipping around and trying on a pair of designer shoes, there’s too much stuff on the floor. If a young woman with a school-bus sized backpack thinks it’s ok to stretch her arm over people to inspect a shoe as opposed to waiting her turn, she needs to go to the top of a mountain and reflect on her behavior. If I’m going back to the store first thing tomorrow morning to return a pair of Rag and Bone jeans because I didn’t try them on at the store, perhaps I need to go with the mountain hiking girl to that apex and reflect as to why I keep going back. 

When I was in kindergarten, I had a very specific formula for my school clothes. I’d outgrown Strawberry Shortcake, so pieces that were littered with patterns of either the character or the fruit had to be replaced. I usually wore a plain sweatshirt or button down blouse with Peter Pan collar with a skirt or pair of corduroys and always, always a pair of fake, white Adidas sneakers with four pink stripes. Rainbows, hearts, plaid, velour tops and tube socks were popular styles for kids during the 1983-1984 school year.

Throughout my childhood, back to school shopping consisted of trips to Zayre, Jefferson Ward and on special occasions, the 90 minute drive south to Downtown Miami. There, at the independent mom + pop vendors, my parents purchased clothing that wasn’t sold in West Palm Beach. (My best buy down there was a turquoise t-shirt purchased during the third grade with the silver metallic face of a generic Madonna/Jem hybrid.) But I was most proud of my church clothes. I always wore slick, black patent maryjanes, stockings and a little purse that was just big enough to hold my bible. The aesthetic perfectly countered my weekday wardrobe which was sporty enough to endure monkey bars during recess and sloppy joes during lunch. Over time I grew tired of this and felt the need to inject some femininity into my Monday through Friday look.

I remember begging my mother for weeks to allow me to wear my favorite church stockings with my regular school clothes. They were thick and white with pink hearts sprinkled all over them. She resisted and tried, unsuccessfully, to convince me that it wasn’t a look that worked. I planned on wearing my Miss Piggy t-shirt that I’d received for my 6th birthday. It was a white shirt with her dressed in a too tight tank top, short shorts and roller skates. The American flag was used as a motif somewhere on the design. I intended to pair it with a denim skirt to show off my pretty Sunday School tights and, of course, my default pair of fake Adidas sneakers.

After a long period of my nagging her, my mother relented and permitted me to wear what I believed to be my sartorial magnum opus at the time. When she dropped me off at school I was elated and couldn’t wait to start collecting the compliments. I don’t think I even made it to Mrs. Weeks’ classroom before I got my first ribbing. If the shorthand “WTF?” existed back then, it would best explain the look on my classmates’ faces. Within minutes, I was embarrassed and felt that perhaps my mother had set me up. In Fashion-ology: An Introduction to Fashion Studies,  Yuniya Kawamura stresses that “Image is a picture that one wishes to project to win approval, respect or prestige by appearing stylish, sophisticated or chic, and its functions within an interpersonal network system.” My six-year-old mind wasn’t sophisticated enough to articulate how I felt to that point, but I do remember dreading her saying that she had told me so. 

In retrospect, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have dressed how I wanted to as well as for the ribbing. In Jamaican patois there’s a term called “poppy show”. In essence, it’s a person who looks ridiculous or absurd, like a damn fool. That long day back in 1984 I was a poppy show for juxtaposing my Sunday School stockings with my Miss Piggy on wheels shirt and fake Adidas sneakers. I’m certain I have the occasional poppy show misstep in my adulthood, but I’m far more prepared for the “WTF?” looks.