I’m on the Champs Elysées somewhere and oh my god, my heel hurts. I’ve stopped being able to walk like a normal person; instead I sort of shuffle along, lifting my left heel by scrunching my toes up and putting all my weight on the front of the foot to avoid rubbing what must surely by now be raw flesh bonding with my sock. I’m afraid to take my boots off to look.
A Nike swoosh rises like a mirage on the other side of the road and I almost yelp with joy: I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see a big box store. I cross the street and hobble to the sneaker section which is huge and utterly confusing. There’s a boy folding T-shirts nearby, young enough to be my son in another life; with pimples on his chin and in head-to-toe Nike. Of course. I ask for help.
Excuse-moi, est-ce vous pouvez m’aider? J’ai besoin de baskets… Quelque chose de simple?
I must have been a teenager the last time I wore a pair of trainers outside the gym: navy blue Adidas Gazelles with white stripes, the same kind Damon Albarn wore. As a grown-up, all that conspicuous branding seems puerile, mug-ish, too many logos an anathema to good taste. Though like any self-respecting fashion scholar I’ve read enough Bourdieu to know that ‘good taste’ is a cultural construct. Plus, they are comfortable.
I’ve got a minor tower of trainers in front of me now, size 40 in every imaginable colourway. I try a few on, but lose heart pretty fast. All I want is something cheap, unobtrusive. Something to wear while I limp home. I spot a pair that fit the bill: pretty plain, €85, black with white laces and a swoosh. Well four swooshes actually, swooshes all over, white on black, there’s no way you’ll miss them. They’ll do.
When I get home, I put my new shoes at the back of my wardrobe and proceed to forget all about them. They stay there for quite a while in fact, while other shoes, other concerns, life, takes over. And then one day I’m looking for something I don’t remember what, and instead stumble on those Nikes again. They still look – and smell – immaculate, box fresh: a pair of comfortable everyday, nothing special trainers, one of millions made in a factory far away.
I wear them that day to the gym, because why not, and then continue wearing them: to the supermarket, running errands, to see friends and colleagues, on travels, to fashion shows. And just as they wheedled their way into my wardrobe, they slip into my everyday life – and when I start travelling every month from my home in Paris to Homerton Hospital in London, I wear them too.
* * *
I was talking to my friend Abdul recently; he’s a self-confessed sneakerhead with thousands of shoes in his collection, so many shoes that they’ve taken over every wardrobe in his house, the bookshelves in his front room, his entire office and his mom’s garage. He told me about falling in love with sneakers as a boy in Sierra Leone. As a kid he played soccer and ran track so they were useful, but then one day he got to see a bootleg VHS tape someone had brought back from America: Police Academy 4. There’s a scene in the movie where a pack of kids skateboard through a mall, then end up being chased by the cops – and every one of them is wearing Air Jordan 1’s. Young Abdul was mesmerised.
What we wear can so easily become a stand-in for yearnings, aspirations, nostalgia. Because clothes always reflect our histories; they can be powerful and transformative, mythical and magical, and full of both symbolic and immaterial value. In my work as a fashion researcher and writer I often return to how full of mystery our relationship to clothes can be, think of a ‘lucky shirt,’ or a piece of jewellery that seems charmed, or an object so connected to aspirations or fortune that it transforms into a sort of talisman, a fetish.
I think of Abdul and his friends nerding out, swapping tips on message boards or WhatsApp threads about where to get the latest iteration of the Air Force 1 or the Adidas Superstar, or the Chuck Taylor, and about how the humble sneaker has become something to stay awake all night for, camp outside a store for, obsess about, fetishise, go bankrupt for. There’s a lovely scene in the movie ‘Just for Kicks’ – a documentary that locates the rise of sneaker culture in the influence of hip hop in New York in the 1970s and 80s: B-Boys, graffiti artists and MCs appropriating shoes worn by basketball players because they were the most comfortable to dance in, stay up all night in, run from the cops in. And because these kids had no money but of course still had to look fly, they cared for their sneakers, they made them last. How? Well by cleaning them, with a toothbrush if necessary, by filling the stripes in with a felt-tip pen, by washing and ironing their shoe laces.
* * *
I’m sure you know as well as I do, what a bad reputation fashion has. It doesn’t seem to matter how successful a phenomenon it is socially or commercially, it’s still thought of as the very apex of superficiality, frivolity, vanity. Intellectuals who write about it mostly seem to do so only in order to denounce it, or else contemplate it with a sort of wry and distanced amusement. Fashion is the part of culture we love to hate. And yet, though clothing is the perhaps most fraught entity of the material world, laden as it is with paradox and ambiguity, is there any object more closely linked with the human body and the human life cycle than the clothes that we wear? There’s a line in the fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson’s book ‘Adorned in Dreams,’ that describes the intimate relationship we have to our clothes better than anything else I’ve come across: ‘garments are objects so close to our bodies so as to articulate the soul.’
Fashion matters because of it. In getting dressed we construct the self as image, simultaneously exhibiting and concealing who we are to the world. Clothing is our armour, but it can also be a failed disguise, much easier to see through than we imagine. We use clothes as marks of our distinction and authenticity, but also as a way to connect with each other and with the past, real or imagined. By virtue of wheedling their way into our everyday lives, clothes transform into material memories that ensure the past is always carried with us into the future.
The philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote that ‘the narratives of the world are numberless.’ ‘Narrative,’ he said, ‘is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.’ The narratives we weave around ourselves through the clothes that we wear have always fascinated me. Garments tell stories, and in their subtle communication we find both language and psychology. Unwanted garments can appear dejected and doleful; it’s through use that we give these inanimate objects a soul.
* * *
That’s why my Nikes are so special to me. As I look at them, lying now at the bottom of a pile of shoes by our front door, worn-out and grubby, a pair of nondescript sneakers that sustained me for a year while I visited doctors, being prodded and poked, legs in the air and feet in stirrups, learning to inject myself until my belly and ass were both bruised and painful, messing up right at the end and having to do it all over again, hoping wishing yearning for a baby. It’s a highly intimate story, out of sight mostly, the one about becoming a mother through artificial means. Being fertile is to be productive, abundant, creative – being barren feels shameful. You need comfort, tenderness, compassion, so you look for it wherever you can: in people, in your environment, in the objects that surround you and hold you. My sneakers did their part by letting me forget that I was wearing anything at all on my feet, one less thing to worry about.
See me as I run to catch the Eurostar, wait for the number 30 bus, walk across a bleak East London housing estate to the clinic, stand on a street corner gulping down coffee from a Styrofoam cup, tap my feet in the waiting room trying to focus on the latest Kim Kardashian adventure in some oil-stained issue of Closer magazine. Notice how all the women here look down at each other’s shoes, how careful we are not to meet each other’s anxious eyes. My sneakers are a suitable companion: they just are, and they let me be too – another anonymous woman bearing the Nike swoosh. What would they say if they could talk? Maybe they would nudge the boots to my right, gently ask how they’re doing. Or help me figure out why the Mary Janes to my left seem so relaxed; what do they know that we don’t? Or perhaps they could convince the nurse’s sensible Crocs to stop for a minute, and get their no-nonsense user to instead step into my shoes for a moment. Because I’m falling over here, and I’m scared.
* * *
How many miles of endless asphalt haven’t I covered in these shoes, and in how many cities? Taking shortcuts where there are none, relying on the familiarity of certain routes and city streets, focusing on little changes – a trashcan overturned by the wind, a single glove placed respectfully on the steps of an estate, a network of chewing gum in different shades of grey on the pavement, the jitteriness of traffic on this particular day – to avoid thinking about whether life is growing in me, or not. There is a kind of voluptuous, almost perverse pleasure in forcing my thoughts where they don’t want to go.
This is the stuff that our intimate lives are made of.
I’ve thought a lot lately about these types of commonplace, ordinary objects that are part of our everyday life, the non-fashionable, mass-produced stuff that form the backbone of material culture. A pair of shoes made in Indonesia, one of millions created by anonymous hands, touched by countless others on their way to a big-box store in a tourist trap neighbourhood in my beautiful Paris. These shoes that were gentle with me when I needed relief from pain and that I’ve cared for in return, swapping laces, avoiding puddles, brushing stains away. These shoes that have moulded after my feet; bunions denting the sides, soles worn down by my particular way of walking.
You probably have something like it in your wardrobe too, a pair of shoes or a piece of clothing acquired in an almost off-hand way, without much thought and without the impulse to impress anyone, something inexpensive meant to fade into the background. How much of our lives isn’t made up of these routine purchases, worn day in, day out, memories accumulating, sticking to the fabric almost despite itself. There is so much humanity to be found here, so much of us in the accumulation of these small things. These are objects that we shape and adjust to fit the routine of our daily grind, that we wear for comfort and to ease everyday existence. Our relationship to them is mostly unconscious, though in repetitive habits intimacy is born, and tenderness too.
* * *
And so, one winter morning in early March I wake up. It’s dark outside, so dark. I look at my phone; it’s 4am, and something feels off. My baby girl is moving around, she’s restless. A little elbow pokes at me from inside, or maybe a tiny foot. I get up to go to the bathroom, and oh my god I feel it – wet trickles down my leg. Just a little, and then a bit more. It’s my water, it’s broken; she’s coming she’s coming. What am I supposed to do now, I can’t think straight. There are no contractions yet, I can’t feel anything is that okay? I wake David up, we google. I call the hospital. It’s okay it’s okay. Everything is going to be just fine. The nurse on the line reassures me, ‘Your contractions will start any minute now,’ she tells me. ‘Come to the hospital as soon as you can.’ I’m strangely calm now, though my adrenaline is pumping. I take a warm shower, pack my hospital bag with books, toothpaste, fresh underwear, my phone charger. We have some leftover stale croissants for breakfast, and coffee. Lots of coffee. I get dressed, in soft pants and my warmest jumper. My big military coat, and a woolly hat. David helps me put my socks and shoes on. My feet are swollen so the only shoes that fit now are my sneakers. I’ve been wearing them every day; they’re just by the door.
It’s 5h30am now and time to go. I move laboriously, deliberately, down the stairs and into the street. I lean on David. My belly is huge and so heavy; I put my hands by my hipbones to support it and I feel the little one – she’s ready. The métro has just opened so we take it. Four stops: Gare du Nord. It’s already filling up with workers on their way to offices on the other side of town, and we let the escalator carry us up and into the street. It’s started snowing, millions of tiny flakes that melt as soon as they land on your skin. It’s still dark, but the sky is full of them now. They land on people rushing to get to work, on smokers pulling on their last drag, on junkies rolling up their sleeping bags, on cars lining the side of the road, on brasserie canopies, on benches and streetlights and trashcans. My shoes are damp but we’ll be there soon.
Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s founder and editor-in-chief.
This essay was originally written for Extra Extra magazine’s podcast series ‘Protagonist of the Erotic.’ You can listen to it here.