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Review: ‘Women From the Ankle Down’ by Rachelle Bergstein

Review: ‘Women From the Ankle Down’ by Rachelle Bergstein post image

Title: Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us
Author: Rachelle Bergstein
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2012
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★½☆

Two Sentence Summary: All history is a story; this is a history of modern womanhood told through the story of her shoes.

One Sentence Review: Women From the Ankle Down is a fun way to look at modern womanhood, even if the author reaches a bit the closer she gets to modern America.

Long Review: One of my favorite history professors in college used to tell us that history is really just a story. The events and facts that we take today as gospel are really just one version of what went down, one lens to look at a complicated series of events and people. In Women from the Ankle Down, Rachelle Bergstein takes that idea of a historical narrative, exploring the history of modern womanood through the evolution of our shoes and the celebrities that made them famous:

Shoes, like works of art, are inextricably bound to the world in which they’re produced, and yet they also rest agelessly outside of it, like bursts of beauty that defy the mundane. Unlike the 1940s and 1950s, when one or two footwear styles would dominate, the latter half of the tentieth century ushered in the age of multiplicity. The be a shoe-loving woman during this time is to enjoy and unprecedented array of options, from platforms to kitten hells, warlike wedges to wispy sandals. It’s been a jock one day if you’re so inclined, a dominatrix the next. And isn’t that the greatest pleasure of the twenty-first-century woman? It’s havng the room to choose — your shoes, your goals, your life.

While I’m not sure I agree with the assertion that more options for shoes is necessarily a signal of what it means to be a modern woman, I did enjoy looking at the invention of the American woman through this lense. Women from the Ankle Down isn’t serious history, but it certainly was fun.

For much of the book, Bergstein focuses on fashion and celebrity — Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Marilyn Monroe’s sexy high heels, Wonder Woman’s boots, Jane Fonda’s aerobic sneakers, or Gwen Stefani’s Doc Martens. With each new style, Bergstein makes an argument for why it became popular at the time and what that type of shoe said about ideas of American womanhood. I would have liked a little more emphasis on average women over celebrities, but I think she makes the connections pretty convincingly until the very end. Right around the time Bergstein starts to write about Sex and the City and the idea that women see themselves in their shoes, I started to feel unconvinced of her argument, but I’m not sure if that’s a reflection of how little interest I have in high fashion or a fault of the book.

Anyway, I have one other small and, perhaps, silly criticism of the book: I really wanted some pictures. Bergstein does an admirable job of describing the fashions and celebrities she is writing about, but I spent a lot of time going online for photos to help me imagine the styles better. That might be an unfair criticism of the book, but nonetheless it was something I noted multiple times as I read.

Women from the Ankle Down didn’t entirely convince me of the idea that shoes make the woman, but it was a fun look back through American history through a lens I’m not entirely familiar with. I think this book would be a fun companion to Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., which uses a similar lens to talk about this topic, but that doesn’t feel so ambitious that it loses momentum near the end.

Other Reviews:

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) May 23, 2012, 12:59 pm

    That sounds like a fun book! I used to care about shoes more than I do these days – now I’m more about comfort than looks.

    • Kim May 29, 2012, 8:26 pm

      I’m pretty lazy about shoes, but that doesn’t keep me from buying frivolous ones that I never end up wearing!

  • Jeanne May 23, 2012, 2:15 pm

    I wonder if my mother would like this book; she has more shoes than any woman you’ll ever meet, with the possible exception of Imelda Marcos. And she knows where every single pair is, too; I’ve seen her come home with a new purchase and immediately pull out three shoeboxes to see what goes best with it.

    • Kim May 29, 2012, 8:27 pm

      Wow! My mom likes to make fun of my shoe habit, but I just have to keep telling her that it’s REALLY nothing compared to other people 🙂

  • Jenna May 23, 2012, 4:21 pm

    What an interesting claim! Do shoes make the woman? It sounds like Bergstein did a good job writing a fun non-fiction book, but I wish she had kept the assertion from going that far. This may be one I have to check out from the library.

    • Kim May 29, 2012, 8:28 pm

      I thought it was a really fun book, especially the historical parts. I may have questioned the ending a bit since I’m less familiar with Sex and the City and because, for all the shoes I do have, I don’t really see myself in that “the shoes make the woman” kind of lens.

  • softdrink May 28, 2012, 9:00 pm

    No pictures?? How can you write about shoes without pictures?!?

    (Can you tell that shoes are near and dear to my heart?)

    • Kim May 29, 2012, 8:29 pm

      You should read this one! I was really surprised there were no photos… it seemed like an obvious addition to a book so focused on fashion.

  • Kathleen June 21, 2012, 1:40 pm

    I’m obsessed with shoes so I think I would like this one but am very disappointed that they did not include pictures!

    • Kim June 26, 2012, 7:28 pm

      Right? I would think a book about shoes would have a ton of pictures! But, if you like shes then I bet you will like this one!