In the political classes, shoes can still point the way to a man’s moral character, writes Jemima Lewis.
Like many sages of her generation, my grandmother took the view that you could “tell a man by his shoes”. A scuffed shoe denoted a chap of chaotic domestic habits, probably best avoided. A well-worn but highly polished brogue, on the other hand, suggested a man both professional and practical, able to take care of the things he loved.
These days, when pretty much everyone, regardless of class or creed, wears dirty trainers, it can be harder to interpret the language of footwear. But in the political classes, at least, shoes can still point the way to a man’s moral character.
Consider the portrait of a young Silvio Berlusconi that was discovered this week. Posing in his office in 1977, the budding industrialist wears a fat tie, a suit so sharp you could butcher a songbird with it, and – most telling – a pair of exceedingly shiny, high-heeled boots. The 357 Magnum on top of his desk is really just a distraction. Everything you need to know about the future Italian PM – the vanity, the corruption, the call girls, the hair plugs – is right there on his feet.
Likewise, you don’t have to be Alan Turing to decipher the hidden message behind Michael Bloomberg’s loafers. The eighth richest man in America revealed this week that he only owns two pairs of work shoes. Both are unassuming black slip-ons, which he bought in 2002. “One day he’ll wear one, the next the other – and when they get worn down, he has them resoled,” Bloomberg’s spokesman confirmed. “He could buy any shoes he wanted, but he likes these.”
In other words, he may be worth $18 billion and in charge of the consumer capital of the world, but Bloomberg still has his feet on the ground. A man who stays true to his old shoes in the face of such temptation must, we feel, be morally sturdy – as if sartorial fidelity betokened a more general capacity for loyalty. Granny would have approved.
Political women are judged by more than just their shoes. Hillary Clinton appeared at the UN General Assembly this week with the front section of her hair pulled back in a clip, provoking consternation among fashion pundits and leader writers alike.
Was it wise to give a speech questioning the legitimacy of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad while, in the words of one newspaper, sporting hair that “looked lank and in need of love”? I’m no expert on foreign diplomacy, but I rather like her ‘do. Most women in American public life tease and spray their hair into such rigid helmets that they look more like Lego characters than flesh and blood. Something a little softer, less styled – more human – might do wonders for geopolitical relations.
It must be horrible being a 5ft 10in teenage girl, so my sympathies go out to Sherry Austen. The 14‑year-old has been threatened with expulsion because she can’t find a skirt long enough to meet uniform regulations.
At St Aidan’s High in Harrogate, meanwhile, all girls under 15 have been ordered to wear trousers, on the grounds that some were putting themselves “at risk” with their short hemlines.
Leaving aside the dubious sexual politics of making girls feel responsible for men’s uncontrollable lusts, there is something to be said for a Taliban-lite policy on school uniforms. Rules are there to be broken, and the more there are, the easier it is to rebel. At my convent school we had to wear standard-issue knickers, a skirt that stopped exactly one inch above the knee, and three different types of shoe, depending on which part of the building we were in.
For the first and only time in my life I became known as something of a wild child, by the simple expedient of wearing plimsolls in the corridor. It was a short-lived rebellion (I decided to mend my ways after being suspended for chewing bubble gum), and a mercifully mild one – for which I am grateful to those wise, despotic nuns.