Title: Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us
Author: Rachelle Bergstein
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
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.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!