On a blazing hot summer afternoon, designer Kimberly Manning Aker and ex-architect Alice Jurow are standing at a podium in one of the plush ballrooms on board the Queen Mary in Long Beach, presenting a winding, charming and not-at-all exhaustive discourse on shoes.
This weekend being the annual Art Deco Festival, their talk is entitled "The Golden Age of Shoes." Manning Aker and Jurow — both pretty, petite, well-heeled women of a certain age who dress in vintage style — are preaching to the converted. Their presentation is less a lecture than a fantasy shopping expedition throughout the centuries.
"What is this fuss over shoes?" Manning Aker asks. "The ones we want often treat us the worst. We hope they fit, and lie to ourselves when they don't. They turn on us and hurt us and yet we still want them."
A gasp from the audience at the opening slide: a pair of sagebrush bark slip-ons, found in a cave in Oregon, some 10,000 years old, little more than bits of leather and fur. "Precursor to the Birkenstock?" Manning Aker muses.
Then it's on to Egypt, and pointy shoes found in a bog: "The longer the toe, the higher the status." Then Italy and France, where Louis XIV painted the heels of his shoes red. Only those in his favor could wear a red heel. Meanwhile, in America, cobblers were copying Native American moccasins. Go figure.
They move on to 1818, and the first differentiation between left and right shoes. Then to a rainbow of dainty English dance slippers, arrayed in rows like so many delectable macarons. Finally, handing over the microphone to Jurow, Manning Aker arrives at everyone's era of choice. Sure, World War I was devastating. But think of the footwear!
For the first time, women were voting, driving and working outside the home. "Their shoes," Jurow says, "kept pace."
Pretty shoes were no longer just for the aristocracy. People were moving into the cities, and streets were paved; girls no longer had to slog through mud just to visit a friend. They could wear decorative shoes without fear of ruining them.
The audience is practically drooling at photos of shoes in brocades, gold and silver and bronze lame, and reptile skins. Shoes with cutouts, contrasting colors, stripes and bows.
In the deco era, "shoe designer" became a bona fide profession. Salvatore Ferragamo, who studied anatomy and was a pioneer in fit, was huge. The Maharani Indira Devi would send him bags of gems to set into her shoes.
Eventually, the opulent, youth-driven 1920s grew up into the sophisticated '30s. French designer Steven Arpad was lesser-known, perhaps, but remains avant garde even for today. One of his designs, Manning Aker says, is like "a wearable Guggenheim museum."
During WWII, shoes were rationed. Purchases were limited to three pairs per year. At this, a cry of horror from the audience. "But imagine how fun it was to shop for shoes in those days," Manning Aker says soothingly, of those less frenzied days. "You could actually sit down!"
By the 1950s, Christian Dior had created the first stiletto heel, and the pointed-toe pump was standard. "Many fashionistas have the foot deformities to prove it."
Warp speed through the '70s, '80s and '90s — Blahnik, Louboutin, Chanel — to the ubiquitous stripper-style platform heel Manning Aker and Jurow like to call "the Kardashian." "I don't have to walk," these shoes signal. "I ride."
Manning Aker touches briefly on men's shoes (boring!). Then, with a "come on up here, doll," she summons Jurow for a bow.
Afterwards, Manning Aker and Jurow regroup in the back of the auditorium. The lecture went well, they decide, even though they've given it only once before. That was at a fundraiser for a battered women's shelter. Manning Aker prudently toned down the "brutality of shoes" language there.
Both Manning Aker and Jurow dress in head-to-toe period style every day. It's something they've been doing since high school. Jurow, 63, who now dresses in '20s style, started by pilfering Dior-style New Look dresses from her mother's closet. Manning Aker, who declines to give her age, started with Edwardian whites and Victorian mourning blacks, eventually maturing into late-'40s noir.
Neither is a stickler for her chosen period. They believe, Manning Aker says, in "putting a little of your own flair into it."
"Because unless you're getting paid to do a historical documentary, it really is just fashion," she continues. "It's just a lovely thing to do."
Manning Aker's husband is also a '40s devotee ("I hooked up with someone who complements my wardrobe"), and she recalls the two of them being escorted past many a velvet rope, the crowd moving aside to check them out, "like the parting of the Red Sea."
Yet some people poke fun. She rattles off the insults: "Halloween was last week" and "I see dead people." And sourcing can be tough. Sneakers and fitness apparel are a perpetual problem. As is underwear. Manning Aker does not wear regular underwear, "because nothing ruins a vintage look faster than a thong bikini line down the middle of your butt." Not long ago, she was at a cocktail bar in a girdle and a wonderful pair of seamed stockings, when all of a sudden the 65-year-old garter belt gave way. It shot across the room and hit a fellow in the eye. He yelped; Manning Aker's friends doubled over in hysterics.
Still, Manning Aker finds the classics better than the alternative. Skinny jeans, to her, are "the devil's trousers." Uggs? Only if "one is in the tundra."
"I play these games sometimes," she confesses. "I get modern catalogs and pretend, if someone held a gun to my head, which outfit would I wear."
A woman in a vintage mink stole comes up to say hello. She doesn't wear her fur often, she says when the ladies compliment her. People can be squeamish about heads and tails.
"Well, you know, their flip-flops and men dressed like toddlers offend me," Manning Aker offers. "You don't see me throwing red paint on them."
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Talk again returns to shoes. Manning Aker owns 50 pairs. Jurow hasn't counted. Among Manning Aker's favorites is a pair of ruffly, satin Daniel Green bedroom "v-slippers" ("Doesn't it look like a vagina?"). The Daniel Greens are essential, "because we do a lot of pajama parties in our little weird group."
But her most favorite are a pair of '50s-style alligator Calvin Klein stilettos. She was wearing them when she was mugged 20 years ago. The mugger pushed her. She turned, kicked him in the stomach and punctured his abdomen. He wound up in the hospital.
Later, at the man's criminal trial, the judge noted her tiny frame and asked how the hell she had put this guy on the ground. She pulled out the shoe.
A couple of women in the courtroom nodded approvingly. "The mugger was clutching my handbag with one hand and calling me a bitch," she recalls now. "And I thought, 'Yeah? Well, don't mess with a girl in a great pair of heels.'?"