Thursday, May 20, 2010

What do men want? And do we care?

Will this blog ever escape the topic of footwear? Not at this rate, it won't, no. Because I've now sustained a tango-related injury. Or rather, a tango and high-heel related injury. According to the physio, a ligament in my left foot is strained. She examined it lovingly, treated it to ultrasound and then it bound up in a way that made it feel much better. Although it does still ache and twinge, and will apparently take some time to heal because there's no blood flow to cartilage. She graciously accepted the pointlessness of forbidding me to dance, but suggested I always ice the foot afterwards. This inevitably rams home all that, until recently, I held as revealed truth - that high heels are the modern equivalent of foot-binding.

And yet ... That's the thing about getting older (one of the things, anyway) - there's always an "and yet".

In her comment on a previous blog, Jacquie made two points: 1. that men would rather see a woman tottering in heels than striding in flats, and 2. that women don't necessarily wear them for men anyway - she doesn't and neither do high-heel wearing lesbians. Rather, they are a celebration of femininity, and she loves wearing them simply for their own sake.

The Plain Jane and No Nonsense side of me flinches at that loaded word "femininity", and yet there's truth in what Jacquie says.

I'm happy to report, though, that she's wrong on count one. I've identified at least one exception to her rule - N, my local cafe's excellent barrista and all-round excellent young man. With only the slightest provocation, he launched into a diatribe on the subject of high heels. He can't understand why women (and more particularly his girlfriend) wear something they can't walk in, and he would much rather they/she wore sensible flats so they didn't have to be supported across busy roads and uneven terrain.

"Be all right if they had a button you could push for walk mode," he said, and performed an impromptu click, drop and go mime.

And yet ...

Searching online for the ultimate in safe and comfortable tango shoes, I went to the source - Argentina. But the women there must be made differently because all I could find were variations on this one.

Out of the question, even for you, Jacquie, surely.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

An illustration of the foolishness of consulting sons on dress codes

No one was looking to me, I hope, for guidance on the question of appropriate Chinese wedding wear. Here is a more or less verbatim transcript of today's messages on that topic between the son in China (J) and his mother (Plain Jane) in New Zealand. S is J's fiancee.

J: Sorry, black dress not really OK, neither is white

PJ: S's view?

J: Yes, I asked her. But now she's kind of flipped-flopped

PJ: Will find something else

J: S says that if it's OK in the free west then it's OK for her

PJ: I think if she's in doubt, I should avoid it

J: S is wearing white which is also wrong, so she says actually black'll be fine. And I'm wearing cut-off jeans and jandals, so whatever

[brief pause]

J: Black is OK, to confirm black is now OK

PJ: I might ask again nearer the time. I don't want to cause a stir or do something her friends and relatives might not like.

J: S is wearing some kind of fomal white dress (I guess you'd call it a wedding dress). As for me, I'm not sure anymore. I only have jeans and sneakers

PJ: Which means you will have to get a suit made or buy one. That's what people do, you know.

J: Hmmm. Hoi An [where we're all going after the wedding] is a good place for getting suits made, maybe I can buy one afterwards. If people know I am planning to buy a suit maybe thats enough ...

JP: Stop teasing S! Actually none of the stuff I had made in Hoi An worked out that well.

J: I can get a custom suit for $150 Sophie tells me

PJ: Yes, of course

J: Some ill-fitting rayon job, no doubt

[brief pause]

All scratchy

[brief pause]

Fire hazard

PJ: Get fine wool, you clot. If you get a fairly classic cut it should last a decade or so.

J: Sounds like a lot of hard work. Maybe I've bitten off more than I can chew ...

PJ: I'm now officially ordering S to clock you one!

Friday, May 14, 2010


This clip, originally from The Onion and sent to me by my friend T in Sydney, is hilarious. At least, she and I and several others think so. Some have got hot under the collar about it, though. "Slut Shaming at The Onion: Humour Fail" at puts the case against finding it funny as compellingly as it can be put. Its main thrust (sorry) is that the faux clip is cruelly judgmental of women's sexuality; it reminds her, says writer Ruth Fertig, of that infamous 1978 Hustler cover.
Back then, this image of shapely female legs being fed into a meat grinder, with the pink mince of her torso being extruded from the other end, appalled and outraged me. And, even if, as was claimed, it aimed at depicting women's consumption by the porn industry, it remains a shockingly revolting image. And one this The Onion clip doesn't in any way remind me of.
What Fertig has overlooked is that it's not the young women's sexuality that defines them here as sluts but their appearance and behaviour, both of which are relentlessly geared towards grabbing male attention. Look at those two women kissing - they're not doing so because they fancy each other but because acting it out it will attract the male gaze. Drive through Courtenay Place in the small hours and you can see any number of young women behaving like this. The "look" and the behaviour have nothing to do with women's rights - they have to do with the age-old assumption that male attention is in women's best interests.
Seems to me one could argue just as cogently that the clip implicitly and explicitly denigrates men. The reporter suggests that what caused the bus crash was some of the onboard slut getting on to the driver; and, in signing off the story, the newsreader farewells him with "Stay safe out there, John, and don't fuck any of those sluts" - both jokes playing on the taken-for-granted notion that all men are putty in the hands of women who look like this.
What does dismay me - given the foul way women are treated in the name of entertainment - is that the youtube version of the clip pixellates out - apparently for our protection - a pair of naked breasts. Now that is something worth getting worked up about.

Wedding wear

My son and his fiancee are getting married in October in Kunming, and, as luck would have it, the day J told me was also the day I bought a wondrously elegant black (yes, black again - and raspberries to you, Trinny and Susannah) Karen Walker dress. Second-hand of course. From Soup, off Courtenay Place.

This second-hand bent seems the most obvious point of difference between Plain Jane and The Thoughtful Dresser. Linda Grant has the means, opportunity and - just as importantly - the will to spend big money on fashion (and I use the term broadly to cover anything appearance-related rather than merely what's hot). Please understand this is no judgment on her character: I'm very well aware how relative these things are, and to a person living with several kids on a benefit in South Auckland, let alone in a third-world country, the amount I spend would be just as unimagineable. So there'll be no fingers pointed from this corner.

I don't have huge amounts of money, and the disposable income I do have must also stretch to tango-related expenses, travel and the usual books-movies-and-eating-out items. Plus, and this is crucial - I love a bargain. Love locating it and seeing how it looks on, and walking out of the shop feeling lucky to have got there first.

So back to the Karen Walker dress. The photograph I took doesn't do it justice. It's an elegant column of heavy crepe-like fabric (the care label has been cut off so I don't know exactly what it is, but it's certainly man-made). Sleeveless, with a high cross-over neck, discreetly asymmetrical with a side split. Cheong-sam inspired, in other words. A definite for the right tango occasion, and in style, if not in colour, surely perfect for a Chinese wedding. I asked J to check with S if black was acceptable wedding wear. And I could cheer it up by wearing red shoes and my flashy little red velvet jacket from Sydney. Which the afore-mentioned Trinny and Susannah would regard as the last straw. Under no circumstances will there be a hat.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The soundly shod feminist

Checking out Linda Grant's The Thoughtful Dresser yesterday, what should I find but this smashing image. It's a Clarks, for god's sake! My mother would have loved the style (for herself, not her teenage daughter, needless to say), and might even have allowed the colour - if buying for a special occasion and if it "went with" her outfit. I left an appeal on Grant's site for an image of those infernal brown sandals, suffering as I am from the compulsion to see them again and make you see them too.

Grant says the shocking-pink Clarks are sold (in the UK) with little gel pads for the balls of the feet - something I've been advised to hunt down for my tango shoes. The more I look at these beauties, the more I feel the need to see them on my feet. Not so long ago that would have seemed preposterous. Which brings me to why I voluntarily shunned high-heels for so many decades. The short answer is the 70s, or, more accurately, the 70s plus feminism.

Even before I left home, stiletto heels had gone the way of beehive hairdos, stiff petticoats, and stockings and suspenders. (Down, boy! Suspender belts were the most uncomfortable garment known to woman, right up there with the chastity belt, but having the opposite effect on men). Those gorgeous little low-heeled blue shoes I brought out from England in 1964 were the shape of things to come. During the decade and a half that followed, I was lucky enough to find fashion coinciding with ideology. Never again would women allow themselves to be crippled by footwear they couldn't move freely in!

My dismay when the damn things came back in the 80s was just about visceral. And complicated by having a daughter who wanted to wear them. Hadn't women learned anything? Hadn't they heard a word we'd been saying? What sort of man wanted to see us tottering rather than striding?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sensible shoes

My feet are killing me. I danced Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and am almost relieved to have no opportunity to do so today. R offered me his under-utilised footbath, and I think I shall say yes, please.

It's not just the dancing that's demanding, but that, as I only realised at the class yesterday evening, my first three months of tango have also been my first three months of wearing high-heels. Or rather, being worn by them, for it's touch and go who's in charge. Never mind doing everything backwards in high-heels (to quote Ginger Rogers), I'm struggling to master the precarious art of merely going forwards. Because, up to this point in my life, high-heels have either passed me by or been by-passed by me.

My mother was dedicated to "sensible" shoes. At least, when it came to her daughter. Sensible shoes were resolutely flat, with staunch rubber soles. They were black lace-ups for winter, and brown Clarks sandals for summer. I've ransacked the net for an image of these things, with their sober cut-outs on the instep, but Clarks no longer seem to make the kind of sandal that several generations of us English kids wore.

What's offer now would have dismayed my mother.

For a start it's white. And would you look at that heel! And that sling back and those open toes! They would have been pronounced highly unsuitable for growing feet, and I would have been removed from the shop as swiftly as if its offerings were a first seductive step into the white slave trade.

She herself loved high-heels. She swore she could barely walk in flats. But I could never be entirely sure she knew this for the spurious justification it was. Being five foot two with a six foot two husband must have been some incentive to wear heels, but she was also very ... I was going write "girly", but was brought up short by the realisation that she gloried in being womanly. So much so that she was determined no one else in the family should dethrone her from this position. Particularly a teenage daughter. Luckily for her I was small-breasted so she had no competition in that department, and ensured I knew it. But I was tall and I was stroppy - I longed to wear stilettos. No chance. They would "ruin" my feet.

Ironically, and in spite of her best efforts, my feet have been ruined anyway - by the bunions I inherited from her. As she aged, her feet appeared more and more tortured. Her big toe bent sideways at nearly ninety degrees so that it sat partly on top of the second toe. And her little toe also bent inwards - a less common condition apparently called a tailor's bunion (which I like because my mother's father was a tailor). All her shoes were distorted by the demands of her bunions but I never once heard her complain of their unsightliness nor of any pain.

Slowly but surely, genetic programming kicked in for her daughter. As each bunion enjoyed a growth spurt it would ache, and sometimes cause shooting pains through my foot. Then it would settle down again. My bunions only hurt now if I'm foolish enough to buy and wear shoes that cut across them, something I avoid doing, no matter how tempting the shoes. So it's now my feet that ruin my shoes.

Until we arrived in New Zealand in 1964, I was firmly under my mother's sartorial control. Then, for my seventeenth birthday, T bought me a pair of pointy, white slingbacks with slender high heels. I wrote a version of this episode into Good at Geography:

The shoes were the sort Lurlene wore. Isobel could not remember exactly how they found their way from the shelf to her feet and
wondered if Clyde were trying to turn her into a girl like Lurlene, a girl who would. She had tottered around Edser's Footwear section under his glittering eye, said thank you when he handed her the box, and half hoped to lose it on the way home.

"Look,' she said, wobbling across the lounge where both parents were
installed in their armchairs. Clyde grinned from the doorway.

Her mother gave Isobel's feet a fleeting inspection. "Very generous of
you, Clyde. I hope you said thank you, Isobel. Look, Daddy, what Clyde bought Isobel.' Clearly she disapproved of their spiky heels and pointed toes, equally clearly she had decided it would be bad manners to say so. The newspaper rustled minimally. Isobel veered in the general direction of the door, uncertain whether she could make it down the
hall, let alone onto the street. Maybe Lurlene would give her lessons.

'Isobel!' Her father's road threw her off balance and she clutched at the door post. He crushed the paper in his lap and rose abuptly in a shower of ash. ...

'Get them off,' he thundered.

Astounded, she flicked the shoes from her feet. ...

'Here, young man.' He jabbed the shoes at Clyde. 'Take my advice, return these to the shop and buy Isobel something more suitable.'

Clyde's bewilderment stung her. 'You can't say that! They were a present. How can he say that?' She appealed to her mother's code of etiquette.

Her mother looked equally stunned. 'If Daddy thinks ...'

Isobel stood her ground as her father loomed over her. His face was
black, his tone icy. 'In my day we only gave presents like this to girls we slept with.'

This is one of the few occasions in the novel when the father is roused out of a chronic emotional absenteeism. And it's shoes that do it. The power of their symbolism for once expressed by him rather than the mother.

The shoes were real, and so were the parental reactions. The shoes were duly returned to the shop (although I'd have vastly preferred to return the parents), and T bought me a hideous paste necklace that I never wore and have long-since mislaid (although it's crossed mind recently that it might have done for tango). They were - to put it offensively - Hutt Valley shoes. They were T's notion of what a girlfriend should wear, and it was just as firmly rooted as my parents' notion of what a respectable child should avoid wearing.

No one asked what I thought. With encouragement I might have been able to say that I didn't care for either view of the bloody things - I simply didn't like them for their own sake. They were already old-fashioned. What I did like, and what I'd chosen to buy in England and bring with me in July 1964, was a pair of blue patent, low Louis-heeled slingbacks, with uncompromisingly round Mod toes and a bow - ironic of course - on the instep. So it was inaccurate of me to claim that my mother had me under her sartorial control until I arrived here - I had those six months alone in England, on a weekly allowance out of which I bought any clothes I needed without maternal supervision. Those little blue shoes were the purest expression of a delicious albeit brief autonomy. I would give a great deal to still have them, or at least a picture of them. And of the dress they "went with".

Friday, May 7, 2010

Sex gear

I staggered in late and happy from tango, having had barely a moment to sit down in the two and a half hours I was there, got into bed with an apple (so to speak) and flicked on the television. It's amazing what screens after my usual bedtime. This was a "kinky top 10", the voice-over flourishing Home Counties vowels my mother would have adored, and which contrasted delightfully with the sleaze-appeal of the content.

We were treated to cross-dressers, whips, dungeons and the joys of rubber wear, with a drop of pee-drinking on the side. But two items particularly fascinated me: a couple indulging in something officially called pony play, and a woman done up to the nines in boots and a rigid plastic corset with a big black strap-on penis bobbing about in front of her.

The bland middle-aged bloke training his "pony" wore a red huntsman's jacket, and had his charge on a lead rein. She never spoke - because ponies don't. She flourished a handsome tail, and wore a (decidedly non-horsey) mask and a bit. Her arms were pinned behind her back by some kind of ... bridle, I suppose you'd have to call it, so as she trotted in obedient circles a pair of small rather sad English breasts trotted ahead of her. He petted and scolded; she offered token resistance but was mostly quiescent.

Pony play, so the handler informed us, is a world-wide phenomen. So - coming soon to a city near you. And if you're interested in the 2011 International Pony Play Chamionships, go here Please.

Facetiousness aside, the "handler" was eloquent on the transformative power of the pony play accoutrements, the way the "pony" became the animal. Evidence, if any were needed, of the way appearance is never simply a one-way street, never merely the way you present yourself to the world, but part of a complex dynamic that reacts back on the "appearer" herself - through both the medium of others and through one's perceptions of self.

This was certainly the case with penis woman. She and her partner had been at some sort of sex-related event when she had caught sight of a big black erect rubber cock, strapped it on and ... Bob was your aunty.

She showed us her neat shelf of strap-ons, and fondled one as she tried to explain their attraction to the wearer. He was more articulate. He said the transformation was extraordinary - when she strapped on that first one, she was instantly more confident, more outgoing, more ... whatever she had not been without one. So he had urged her to buy the thing and wear it. Not, it seemed, for his own gratification - "If she came anywhere near my arse with that thing, all hell would break loose", or words to that effect - but because he loved her and what made her happy made him happy.

Germaine Greer said decades ago of so-called penis envy that it wasn't their penises we'd been envying all these years, it was their power. And, judging by the effects on this woman of weilding even a pretend one, Greer was spot on. As to the pony play - come in, Germaine.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Selling as well as buying second-hand

Lying across the spare bed are a surprising number of clothes and a couple of pairs of shoes that I'm thinking of taking down to Madison Rose, in an attempt to compensate for yesterday's extravagance.

Just because I love clothes and shoes doesn't mean I don't suffer occasional pangs of puritan conscience. About which, more later.

I usually donate my own no-longer-wanted clothing (which often hasn't been loved enough to justify the label "pre-loved" nor its continuing to take up wardrobe space) to the New Horizons Trust for Women.

This outfit raises money for the education and re-training of women through its fantastic annual clothing sales. Fantastic not just because you can pick up some great bargains, but because it's such fun trying to. Even before the official start time of 9am, the hall is seething with women looking, admiring, rejecting and grabbing from the racks. Then they make their way - often with a pile of stuff they can hardly see around - to the kitchen at the back that serves as a changing room.

Even more of a crush in here. And an ever-present risk of getting an elbow in your face as a neighbour stuggles in or out of something that's caught her fancy. You ask total strangers what they think of a garment you're trying on, and they'll often give an opinion whether you ask them to or not.

A couple of years ago, a statuesque young woman was lucky enough - or determined enough - to have reached the only full-length mirror, and was fending off all comers in an effort to calculate the effect of a skirt she'd tried on.

Her friend said, "That's nice, you should definitely buy it."

And I chimed in, "Yes, you should. I made it and it looks great on you."

There's something about this event that, in spite of the apparent competition for goodies, seems to bring out the best in the women who attend. A recognition of sisterhood in the shared pleasure.

Somehow, in the course of the last year, I fell off Horizon's mailing list and missed out on donating or buying.

But back to the pile on the spare bed, which I hope will earn back at least some of its keep. I can't let it go though without recording what a couple of items meant to me at the time of acquisition.

New and second-hand

"Beware any enterprise that requires new clothes," wrote Henry Thoreau. What a sad-sack sentiment! We come into the world naked and need new clothes almost immediately. So what are you going to do - distrust life?

Who knows whether Henry's definition would have included the "pre-loved" item. A new second-hand shop has opened in Kelburn and on my first visit there today I bought four things.

It helped that the premises are brand-new and nicely carpeted, that it didn't reek of old ladies' armpits and had spacious, well-lit changing rooms. What helped most though was the young woman owner - friendly, enthusiastic, and utterly unlike the women of a certain age who rule over a number of other Wellington second-hand clothing outlets. Grand dames with loud private-school voices and loud private-school opinions, who are inclined to scold you for leaving the shop without buying anything and treat you disdainfully if you do.

The young woman in Madison Rose doesn't behave as if she's doing customers a favour by allowing them to browse the racks, try things on and buy them, or not.

I came away with a classic little black Australian tango dress, a pair of brand new Django and Juliette shoes, a Doris de Pont skirt, and a short plain French red velvet skirt - for tango, again. The LBD can't be shown off to advantage without a female body inside it, so that one will have to wait.

The point of the de Pont skirt - as I hope you can see from the photo - isn't the shape, which is simple A-line, but the back and front panels of steel blue patterned in black.

As for the shoes, funky without being hippy-ish, I think. With heavy-duty rubber soles that will be great for walking in, and no use at all for tango.

Henry would heartily disapprove of my tango addiction. It's demanded a whole new wardrobe, and I have happily succumbed to its demands.