Finding joy in a pair of Robber Baron shoes, by Stephanie Hayes

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Before, I dressed well, like an extroverted retiree from Boca dresses well. I’ve always favored sequins, animal prints, chunky jewellery, faux fur, very sculptural hair and anything resembling a dressing gown. Although I admire the chic, minimalist style – for example, a bare-faced Frenchwoman in an olive green sack dress on a vintage bicycle – I never managed to be that woman. I am helpless in the presence of, say, a T-shirt with a whimsical tiger wearing an Elizabethan ruff and horn-rimmed glasses, along with a catchy feminist phrase. Or a baseball cap that says TARPON SPRINGS all in rhinestones. The female mystic! It’s who I am! On this hill I die!

But I lost track of my personal style during the pandemic, going from stomping on a desk to being one with the couch. My freaky dresses and crisp jackets morphed into tank tops, leggings, and scare at the local brewery. Misery.

Now life has settled somewhere in the middle. I go to the office for a bit and venture further afield, but the energy still crackles on a bad connection. So much has changed in two years, and fashion has left many of us behind. The mood has changed. The word “cheugy” became cheugy. My once fun Boca-lady clothes feel outdated and grumpy, like a Judy Greer character in a 2000s romantic comedy. Just dozens of Judy Greers in the form of skinny jeans and fashion the tops look at me. I’m empty. I’m empty.

And that’s how I recently found myself moaning at the feet of sticky shoes.

We were in the kind of shoe store with rows of boxes and a utilitarian selection of large sizes. We needed new sneakers for my stepson. A modest quest, not an indulgent journey.

Corn there it is! There they were, bathed in the fluorescent light of a large box. Iridescent faux snake in cream color, ankle strap, wavy seam rainbow threads and — gasp choke die — plastic gems. The heels were MIRRORS. You hear me? The heels were mirrors. I tried them on, knowing they would be a prison walk, but they felt plush, comfy, adorable.

Do you watch “The Gilded Age” on HBO? In these shoes I was Bertha Russell, the new wife of 1800s New York robber baron George. It’s sticky and, uh, representative of modern economic inequality. But if you can get past that, she’s fantastic. She dares to drink from cups of colored glass. She shows cleavage. She comes without invitation. She will plot the disappearance of everyone around her while carrying several peacock feathers.

Are the shoes expensive? That’s what you want to know. I know he is. I’m not going to give a number because it doesn’t matter. It will mean something different to everyone and lead to EMAILS and @SIGNS. I wasn’t exactly in a Gucci store. But these useless shoes cost more than what I would normally spend on useless shoes. I moved away.

I think my husband saw something flicker in me, the way George Russell oozed pity when Bertha threw a gala with food for hundreds at her garish mansion and no one showed up. A small sticky flame. Maybe a little nostalgia for my old self?

“Throw them on the pile,” he said, holding the child’s sneakers and some shoes he had picked out that looked like, well, lizard skin. We were all losing it.

“No, you don’t have to…”

“LET ME DO SOMETHING GOOD FOR MY WIFE,” he said, heroically, proudly, as if wearing a silky tie and not a Tampa Bay Lightning T-shirt. He was buying up inventory from the ladies’ charity bazaar because those old crones had insulted his wife! He was noble! I fainted !

Now you say, if you’re married, don’t you split the money? Yes, mostly. But shut up, please, that’s not the point.

At that time, we chose ugly shoes. We’ve decided to accept a little excess in a time when any kind of non-essential joy seems excusable and misguided. Our shoes, our weird and useless shoes, were a little door leading us back to a place of personality, color and form, of joy of living.

No, I haven’t worn them yet. But when I do, be careful. I will show up uninvited.

Stephanie Hayes is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times in Florida. Follow her at @stephhayes on Twitter or @stephrhayes on Instagram.

Photo credit: Sponchia on Pixabay


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