It’s hard for a person barely reaching five feet two inches to “stand tall” in any way except as a metaphor – or when wearing a pair of high heels. My lesson in how to stand tall, however, came from a pair of low-heeled shoes. My Magli shoes were so beautiful that wearing them made me feel beautiful too. While wearing them I felt confident and graceful.
Italy was where my fascination with the Magli brand of shoes began. I was traveling through Europe by myself the summer after my sophomore year, my friend had decided that she was homesick. One afternoon I was window shopping on Rome’s Via Veneto in Rome when the street was still a wonder of high fashion stores and cafes where one sipped overpriced espresso “to be seen.”
As I shuffled about in my low-priced sandals, I stopped at one window and took a deep breath – the Magli Store. The shoes behind that shop’s glass were innovative, yet classic. They expressed themselves in natural colors and twists of leather. They whispered to me to enter the store.
There were high heels, but the display of lower-heeled shoes is what I heard calling to me. In spite of the “sensible” size of the heels, these shoes quietly declared, “I am elegant.”
I gulped. No prices so I knew the cost was probably more than I could really afford, but I pushed the door open and breathed in the scent of luxury. A petite, dark-haired salesgirl walked up to me and addressed me in English: “May I help you?” So much for my Italian genes.
“I’d like to see the beige shoes from the front right window – in what would be an American size nine.”
She looked down at my feet. She expressed no disgust at the dirt my sandals bore from traipsing about Rome’s dusty summer streets, nor at the size of my feet. She showed me to a seat and brought me a nylon for trying on shoes. Then she fetched the pair I had requested, and two others with similar heels. Each was elegant and distinctive.
I strode up and down the deep pile carpets for a trial walk in each pair, and then, surprising myself (and her I think) handed over the American Express card my father had given me to use in emergencies, pointed to the beige beauties from the window and said, “I’ll take that pair.”
She helped me back into my shabby sandals and asked me to follow her to the counter where she placed the “King’s Ransom” shoes into a bag. Even just holding that wonderful pair of shoes made a difference in my day. I no longer felt the July heat of Rome as I walked.
My dear father wasn’t sure buying expensive shoes constituted an emergency, but when I got home, he did not scold me. Once the little beige beauties were in my wardrobe, they graced my feet only for special occasions – after all, I was still on a college campus. When I got to meet Pearl Buck, when my Mom came to celebrate me at an Honors Tea – I wore them. In graduate school at my oral exams, to job interviews – all of those times they worked their magic imparting their elegance to me. From toe to head, I found myself “speaking smarter” giving better answers at interviews.
After a stint at graduate school, armed with a Master’s, I went to work in Washington, DC. Only blocks away from my Dupont Circle apartment was one of the few American outlets for Magli. That store adhered to the American custom of holding half-off sales twice a year. I was in heaven. My first pair of Magli shoes was getting ragged. In fact, the strap on the now five-year-old shoes broke before I could go to the first sale, leaving me to step into the DC Magli shop in a pair of plastic pumps from Hecht’s bargain department. The aroma of fine leather transported me back to Rome. I knew my feet were home.
Once again, a salesgirl treated me kindly and I walked out with a pair of shoes. (This time I paid for them myself.) Every six months, I bought another pair. Magli magic helped me speak clearly and assertively when my feet were the only women’s feet under a conference table. Wearing my Magli shoes, I put forth theories and evaluations with confidence and grace. I wore Magli shoes on my first date with my now-husband, at my wedding, and on the honeymoon.
My last pair of Magli’s came to me on a summer day, from Nordstrom’s in Fairfax. The downtown Magli store was long gone. I’d started my maternity leave from my job as an economist. The baby was due in a week. Most of me was huge, but my feet were still the same size. I tried on a pair of black and white open-toe, low-heeled beauties. The soft white leather wrapped around the top of my foot like a delicate finger, caressing the top of my instep. A small black leather band played hide and seek in the layers of white.
I wore them when I decided to resign from my job to stay home with our daughter. I wore them when I met with an editor to follow up on my first story pitch as a freelancer. I wore them to church. My feet loved them. Like their cousins before them, they imbued me with a sense of elegant confidence.
When my feet began to spread out with old age and I could no longer fit into them, I shoved them under the bed to whisper at me from afar. When we moved from that house where our children had grown from babies to young collegians, I finally released that last pair of Magli shoes to Goodwill. Believe it or not, after all those years, they were still lovely, stylish, and in top condition. I had learned to “stand tall” by wearing, owning them. Now it was time to offer someone else a dose of Magli magic.