My mother was frugal by nature but when it came to purchasing school shoes for our feet money was no object. She often told us that such a luxury was impossible in her big immigrant family. As the youngest child she always wore hand-me-down shoes that were often so badly worn that there were gapping holes in the leather soles. Her mother cleverly inserted cardboard inside to keep them useful for a bit longer. Mama never complained about her childhood predicament but I suspect that it was a source of embarrassment for her. She rectified her own want by providing me and my brothers with sturdy, well fitting footwear that came from the finest makers of children’s shoes. In fact, we regularly visited the local Lippies’ Shoe Store where the parents of one of my classmates were maestros of quality procedures that insured that the shoes we purchased would hug our feet like soft gloves.
I appeared to have fallen arches so Mr. and Mrs. Lippies insisted that I wear oxfords with a steel support to hold my flat feet in the correct position. Finding just the right pair for me was a tedious process that often took well over thirty minutes of intense consideration of my physiological needs before the kindly owners of the store felt that I had the most perfect pair for my feet. Mostly the style never varied. Virtually every time that Mama bought me a new pair of shoes they were saddle oxfords that I might wear to school. I would then use them until I had outgrown them and my toes were pushing painfully at the edges.
Luckily saddle oxfords were still very popular when I was a little girl. Since I attended a Catholic school I wore a uniform each day with brown colors modeled after the clerical robes that were the official attire of the Carmelite priests who had founded our parish. The contrasting hues of my saddle oxfords were always brown on white. I took meticulous care of my foot wear because it was all that I had. I learned how to keep the white spotless and shiny with a daily dabbing of polish and a bit of elbow grease to create an almost new appearance.
The saddle oxford first came into popular culture in 1900 and was at that time essentially an athletic shoe for men. This was an era when women were beginning to voice their independence in earnest as they lobbied to gain the vote. It was only natural that they would preempt the saddle oxford for their own and it soon became all the rage, being worn for both athletic pursuits and in casual situations. By the 1920’s the saddle oxford was a staple for men and women alike but by then the men’s shoes favored darker colors while the women still loved either the original black and white combination or the brown and white that I would later wear.
In the 1940’s saddle oxfords became the almost exclusive domain of teenagers. Since the world was engaged in a war and rationing was a fact of life, many adolescents purposely scuffed and dirtied their shoes so that they would not appear to be frivolous. They also began the trend of wearing socks with their shoes.
It was in the 1950s that the traditional saddle oxfords enjoyed their heyday. School children and hip teenagers alike paired them with thick white socks that were carefully folded to create the right look. It was a time of growth and plenty in the country and so instead of giving the iconic shoe a used appearance the style was to keep them in mint condition with nightly cleaning and polishing. It was in this era that I was first introduced to the favorite style of the trendy set.
By the 1960s the saddle shoe was still very much around but a new sleeker competitor was quickly overtaking the somewhat clunky and dated looking oxfords. The new rage was the penny loafer, a lovely brown slip on shoe with a small slit across the shank that often held a shiny penny. I fell in love with the loafer but both my mother and the caring Lippies family insisted that my growing foot still required the support that only a pair of saddle oxfords provided. With a kind of spoiled fickleness I began to resent the two toned clunkers that I had once so loved and each time that we visited the shoe store to purchase my next pair of oxfords I begged and begged for a pair of penny loafers instead.
Because the state of my fallen arches had not improved as I grew older our family doctor suggested that my mother take me to a podiatrist. Frustrated that the financial sacrifices that she had made had not impacted my feet, Mama finally gathered together some rainy day funds and took me to the specialist. To my great delight he announced that I did not have flat feet. In fact I had a beautiful arch. An extra bone in each of my feet only gave the appearance of problems. He gave me the green light to wear any style of shoe that I wanted.
The next pair of school shoes that I owned were beautiful brown Old Maine Trotters penny loafers which I loved with a passion. I happily wore that style for all four years of high school. I suspect that I would have been willing to make them my go to shoe for the rest of my life but by the eighties they had become almost impossible to find, left behind by fashionistas and supplanted by newer trends.
Interestingly the original loafers were styled after moccasins. In the 1930s a particular type of the slip ons were used by Norwegian farmers. Americans who visited that country were taken by what they saw as a very interesting style. The Bass Shoe Company created a prototype of the Norwegian shoe and added a saddle with a small slit, calling it the Weejun. It slowly but surely caught on among professionals and young people who often inserted pennies in the openings thus creating the term penny loafers. Rumor has it that the idea of putting pennies in the shoes came from a time when a phone call cost only one cent. Having a bit of cash on hand was a boon to youngsters who now carried the needed funds to phone home in the event of an emergency.
The Bass Shoe Company still carries the classic loafer that was a fashion staple in my youth. I often think of trying them once again because I recall being so comfortable in those loafers. To my mother’s dismay I began to purchase less expensive shoes when I became independent. I preferred to have a closet filled with different styles and colors over the idea of having a single pair that were good for my feet. I’m still a sucker for good looking shoes but these days my knees cry out for mercy and they are winning the battle of comfort over style. I’m slowly but surely going back to the ways of my youth and I often wonder if wearing a pair of saddle oxfords or loafers might be in my best interest. I’ve combed online catalogs and found that Bass still carries their Weejuns. Maybe one day I will take the plunge.
In the meantime I think of my precious mother putting her pennies together to provide me with shoes that always fit just right and protected my growing feet. It was a sacrifice that I took for granted back then. Now I understand just how wonderful it was and I remember those kooky styles that became icons of my generation with a sense of pride. Somehow my clever mother managed to hide her financial difficulties so well that I always felt rich and I suppose that in many ways I was. I enjoyed a wealth of spirit that made me strong and eventually confident in part because of the luxury of well constructed and perfectly fitting stylish new shoes.