For many women, our teenage years mark the birth of our personal sense of style. At that age, we’re striving to fit in with our peers even as we’re working hard to establish our individuality. What we choose to wear helps us navigate both gauntlets.
Teens also focus on differentiating themselves from their parents, and God knows fashion is a powerful way to do that. In every generation, adolescents opt for clothes and shoes (and hairstyles, tattoos and piercings) that intentionally shock their elders in a not-so-subtle attempt to deliver this message: “I’m not you, I’m me. I make my own decisions now, and here’s what I think is cool.”
As I began to emotionally separate from my very fashionable mother, I started choosing styles that she would never wear nor pick for me. To her credit, she supported me all the way even when my choices were, in retrospect, hideous. (Anyone else remember Earth shoes?)
When I think back on my best-loved shoes from that time in my life, it’s clear that the choices I made were subconsciously designed to help an uncool girl feel a little bit cooler. With that in mind, here’s a brief look at my favorite formative footwear.
When I was fourteen, I switched schools. I went from an economically diverse public junior high to a decidedly more upper class college prep school. There, I met a whole new breed of girls, many of whom reminded me of thoroughbred ponies. I could practically smell the scent of good breeding and old money in the air as they cantered gracefully across the quad. The queen of them all, in my eyes, was the magnificent Jennifer Christian. I had never seen such natural beauty worn with such ease. Her blonde hair tumbled down her back, grazing the top of her Levis corduroys. Her embroidered Mexican peasant top highlighted her long neck and pale collarbones. And then there were her shoes. Miss Christian rocked a pair of wedge platform sandals, known then (and now) as Kork-Ease. I had to have them. I knew they wouldn’t transform me from a gangly mouth-full-of-braces nobody into Jenny Christian, but at least our feet would look the same.
I coveted these for a long, long time before they ended up on my size-eight feet. They were the priciest shoes I’d ever owned, setting me (or rather, my parents) back a whopping $65 in 1975. (Today, a new pair made of lesser-grade materials than the originals costs about $270.) My Frye style of choice was the Campus boot, which featured a bulky toe and a chunky heel. Besides digging their cowboy-chic vibe, I suspect my sturdy boots helped me feel stronger and more grounded than I actually was at 15. And I wasn’t alone. In Englewood, NJ and across the USA, Campus boots were the “It” shoe for both boys and girls, especially in that ubiquitous yellow color, which was questionably marketed as “banana”. A testament to their place in the pantheon of coolest footwear of all time: A pair of 1975 Campus boots currently sits on display at the Smithsonian.
These low-profile Swedish sneakers – considered to be the first luxury sport shoe – represented yet another attempt on my part to be something I wasn’t – an athlete. Bjorn Borg and Martina Navratilova made them famous on the court while celebs like Farrah Fawcett and Jackie O. sported them around town. For me, lacing up my Tretorns made me feel slightly European, naturally athletic and born-to-the-manor preppy. (Tretorns are actually listed in The Official Preppy Handbook.) Now that’s a transformative shoe. Plus, they made my feet look small, and, as any girl will tell you, there’s nothing more important than that.
The beauty of these clunkers was their functional funkiness with a hint of hippie. Clogs were cute, easy to slip on and great for stomping through puddles. Plus, if they were cool enough for the super-group ABBA, they were cool enough for me. But at my school, the unrelenting popularity of clogs was also their downfall: They were actually banned due to the racket they made as a couple hundred girls clip-clopped though the halls. My favorite pair was covered in brown horsehair. I used to stroke those shoes like pets until a friend pointed out how cruel it was that a horse died for my fancy clogs. I suspected my clogs were not the driving force behind any horse’s demise, but she had touched a nerve. So what did I do? I took my disposable razor and shaving cream and tried to shave my clogs. It did not go well.
Thus far, my favored footwear has been understated or unisex. At the opposite end of that spectrum were Candies, wooden platform slides that were cheap both in price and sex appeal. With no cushioning and no arch support, they were totally uncomfortable and made a loud slapping sound as I walked. Wearing them made me feel like a Barbie doll teetering on the edge of a pier. But boy, did they make my legs look long and my calves look sleek. The popularity of Candies exploded with the release of the movie Grease. In it, Olivia Newton-John played an innocent schoolgirl transformed into an irresistible sex goddess catting around in – you guessed it – Candies-style shoes. Yes, please! I too wanted John Travolta (or any male for that matter) to fall to his knees over my sudden hotness. Many shared my Candies mania: From 1978 to 1981, young women snapped up some 14 million pairs.
While writing this essay, I did some shoe-surfing around the Web and I’m glad to say that these brands and styles remain vibrant today. It seems that when it comes to teens and coolness, the more things change the more they stay the same. As for me, some forty years later, I’m heading down to Soho to score a pair of Tretorns.