The Book That Started It All: A Review of SHOES by Linda O’Keeffe

WordPress notified me that my stocking article was my 199th post! That makes this one the 200th post on the Pragmatic Costumer blog! It so happens that today is Friday and I had a bit of a flashback, so here’s a bit of a “Flashback Friday.” :)

I just recently published a post about the glorious array of historical stocking choices available in the modern world. When I was searching for the perfect image of shoes paired with gorgeous antique stockings, there was only one image I wanted– a picture of three prettily shod turn-of-the-century feet with equally beautiful stockings, which you may recognize:

I didn’t discover this image in one of my frequent internet research binges. In fact, I was quite afraid I wouldn’t be able to find it at all. If I knew the perfect image, but never found on the internet before, how did I know of it?


Right here, of course!

 When I was writing the piece, I was suddenly struck by the violent spasm of memory about this book:


Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers, and More by Linda O’Keeffe (1996)  is the book that started it all. I know that it existed on our bookshelf while I was in high school; however, I don’t recall when or how the book came into our house. I just know that it belonged to my mother who, while interested in the history and pictures, isn’t exactly someone I consider “obsessed” with footwear by any stretch of the imagination, despite what the back of the book might proclaim.


The book itself is simple. There are biographies of famous shoe makers and historical tidbits. There are some myths shared as though they were fact, but the book is 18 years old and books (and authors), though revered, are never infallible. The unusual shape is attractive, but stresses the spine. Mine’s held up fairly well despite all my abuses. It does flop a bit, though. If you are a shoe lover, history aficionado, or both, this book would be right at home in your library!

Even I cannot profess any love passionate love affair with shoes, but I can profess a love affair with this book. What first attracted me was the unusual size. Most books in our house were fairly stereotypical books. Their shapes were taller than it was was. This book is much wider than tall, plus it’s as thick as a cheap romance novel.


Sensual encounters with handsome men not included, though there are some pretty risque shoes in there…

Naturally, I was drawn to its oddness being quite an odd book myself. I was also drawn to the large, bright images, especially of art shoes. Before this book came along, I had never considered shoes to be artistic. Sure, I lived near Santa Fe, the “City Different” and had seen a fair lot of fanciful dressers, but shoes until that point were a merely a nuisance. I preferred to tromp around barefoot if I could, and when shoes were necessary, a single pair of boots or sneakers was about the extent of my tastes. But, I am an artist by nature. Even if i am not a snappy dresser, I appreciate objects that are beautiful and the fantastical array of shoes that extended beyond the simple concept of shoes I had developed made me supremely happy. I had no desire to wear most of them, but they were so beautiful on their own, splashed broadly over the chunky pages like candy confections and 3D modernist paintings.


Besides all the wild and wonderful modern shoes, there were pages and pages of antique shoes. My encounter with historical costume up until that point was fairly standard for a child. Pilgrims wore black dresses with wide, white paper collars cut out of paper plates in 1st grade, pioneers wore ill-fitting calicoes in colors and patterns I didn’t particularly care for, and colonial women somehow had white hair all the time. Everything else was a mystery. A lot of people my age did not have access to the internet when we were young to fill in the gaps, and when presented with what little costuming info we got, it all looked dull or hideous. The internet was still fairly young, so my only references were school textbooks (which, naturally, didn’t focus on fashion beyond satirical political cartoons of women wearing “ridiculous” clothing and stern-faced George Washington in his military uniform) and the books were had at home. I was very lucky that my parents are book and history lovers. I learned to love history quite early on, but fashion was still a realm I didn’t care for, nor really know existed. “Shoes” changed that. This is the book that introduced me to the glorious chopine– my one true shoe love and the bit of historical costume that sparked my interest in Elizabethan garb.


Who wears these things? Why? What do they wear with it? When the curriculum (and Mrs. Heffner) dropped Shakespeare into our laps full-force in high school, my questions slowly started to be answered. Suddenly, I was irrationally angry that Juliet was not wearing chopines in any stage productions (it would be years before I got to see one on a foot).

“Shoes” opened up the world in many ways, making all the historical events I had read about seem much more poignant. I learned about Chinese Lotus shoes that were tiny enough to be printed life-size in a book that fit in my palm and suddenly understood why outlawing them in 1912 was so important. The WWII era shoes made from recycled materials during wartime rationing drove home just how hard people struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy in the midst of chaos. And then there were blush-inducing Victorian fetish shoes that unfolded like the centerfold of a men’s magazine:


When I moved for college, I did not take the book with me. It was still my mother’s, after all, and my sister was also particularly fond of it. So for four hard, long years, I didn’t have my beloved reference with me. That long break did prompt me to look online where I discovered even more lovely shoes that the book never mentioned. But now, the book is mine!

Linda O’Keeffe has released a newer version of this book under the same title. I haven’t looked at the newer one (Honestly, I felt like I was cheating on my “book boyfriend” just looking it up on Amazon), so I cannot attest to its quality. However, it looks as though the content is pretty much the same with a few new additions. These books are definitely not designed for folks looking to do in-depth research. It is designed as an art book that happens to have interesting factoids scattered throughout. It’s a great jumping-off point, though, and you might even be able to squeeze it into a Christmas stocking if you try hard enough!


If you can stand to part with it, that is.

4 thoughts on “The Book That Started It All: A Review of SHOES by Linda O’Keeffe

  1. Book purchased by your Uncle Art (probably Aunt Sandy) to give me for Christmas with a collection of shoes to add to my grandmother’s “shoe” collection.

  2. Honestly, I could have written this exact post, even down to asking myself where I had seen that picture before and being horrified by those fetish heels and the lotus shoes… And sadly leaving the book with my mother when I moved out! Wow….!

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