Old Shoes, New Lives: Shopping for Vintage Shoes

Vintage shoes have their issues, from pinchy toes to antique foot funk. But those lost designs and chic details make them hard to pass up.

My love of vintage clothing probably dates back to some other life when I actually wore all that stuff with no sense of irony. (Okay, maybe not the boldly-printed 1970s maxi dresses, because I was actually alive in the 70s, which I hold up as an excuse for my sometimes questionable taste.) As a kid with limited allowance and even less in the way of birthday cash, I developed a personal flair for putting together retro outfits culled from rummage sales, the Salvation Army, estate auctions and my mother’s cast-offs. By age nine I could rock a mustard-colored felt hat; by fifteen I’d moved on to pleather car coats and paisley shirts.

But the one area of vintage that has always been questionable, in my mind, is shoes. Not because I’m not attracted to retro footwear — I am — but the idea of strutting someone else’s shoe is kind of … icky. I mean, do vintage stores fumigate those things? Because I have an idea about what a pair of platform boots have faced, hours in to a disco marathon. And I’m not convinced that thirty years is long enough to remove a good, polyester-fueled sweat. Having shared close quarters with my sister who, as a pre-teen, wore her sneakers sockless, I know that shoes + stinky feet are akin to the expedited version of a hundred-year egg.

The other problem with vintage shoes is sizing. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason why a size 7 1/2 circa 1945 has little in common with the shoes currently stocking my closet. So I’ve learned. When investing in vintage footwear (which I do, from sellers I trust to carry well-cleaned shoes and boots), I go by measurements and pay no mind to the sizes. The best bet is to try them on in person, but I’ve anted up for more than one cute pair on eBay (my favorites: a knee-high pair of lace-up brown boots that perfectly resemble Holly Hobby’s kicks of choice) and actually broke out the tape measure to be certain I could fit into the shoes. For what it’s worth, one of those flexible tapes used for sewing, rather than carpentry, works best.

Finally, after obsessing over a gorgeous, if impractical pair of brown suede kitten heels that looked to be from the 1930s, I came across a vital nugget of wisdom. A fashion-forward friend of mine listened to my woe: The shoes were too small to wear comfortably, and made no sense with my daily wardrobe, but were too cute to let get away. Wisely she suggested that I buy them and use them for decor. Displayed on a bookshelf, gracing a mantle or even placed conspicuously on the floor, the artfully-worn heels and well-loved leather come off as architectural antiquities. Even better, they serve to remind me that I love shoes not only for how they get me from point A to point B, but for how they speak to some deeper artistic sensibility.


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