Mary Janes – you either love them or you hate them. Today, my friend Julie tells us all why she loves Mary Janes.
I buy shoes like many women do – too many of them. I own too many and so many of them are sort of predictably Julie. I know the people around me will comment about shoes , saying “those are so Julie” and what it is that makes a Julie shoe is a variation on a Mary Jane.
Basically, what I wear a lot of is simply some variation on the Mary Jane. It’s so funny. The other morning I was browsing the internet from bed as one does in lock down and hit “buy” on a pair of shoes. A couple of days later I was thinking about them and thought I think I bought shoes the other day but I can’t remember what I bought. I was asking “Will I still like shoes when they arrive?” They arrived just yesterday and I love them. They are a plum Mary Jane with sort of a stack heel, a slight platform and of course an ankle strap, walking across the instep and the suede! I just think they’re gorgeous. This is a classic Julie shoe. It’s a comfortable shoe, but it’s feminine. It always has that strap. For some reason, that’s just what I’m attracted to. I’m going to insist that Mary Janes can be really pretty too. I just think is super sexy and super pretty. It’s beautiful. There’s colors and texture and contrast and collage and the strap. It can go with a million dresses. So when I started to think about it, I began to realize a lot of people actually have more fraught histories with shoes than we think we do.
I want to talk about my origin story. Basically a lot of people who know me, professionally or socially don’t often know that I actually grew up Mennonite.. This is a picture of me and my brothers when we were young. Being Mennonite involves a very restrained style and a dress style that is prescribed by the faith, essentially, and the way that you dress is not about self expression. It’s about adherence to religious law. So the dress is the clothing that we wear, all homemade. My mother made all of the clothing that the three of us are wearing in this photo, except shoes, shoes, were not homemade. She had to buy these things. So it was a duty to spend money in a practical way. We lived on a farm in a rural Mennonite community in Ohio in the 1970s. This kind of durable, sturdy, functional attire that is not pretty and it’s not to draw attention to you is all about getting the work done. And you’ll notice the shoes I’m wearing here is an Oxford . This is a dressed up picture, I think this was Christmas that we’re going to church or something like that and we’re dressed up for the holiday. And those were my good church shoes. So it’s a shiny black, could equally be for a boy or girl and a lot of times my shoes literally were hand me downs from my older brother. So we did our “sneakers” that are heavy black shoes, and that was the default. So my early history was shoe as function.
“Who else wears these kinds of big solid black things?” Raggedy Ann. She’s got literally black stumps on the end of her feet. And that was basically like with socks up above them but that was basically the model for little girls, your socks hiked up under your layers of dress. I would have a slip under dress. Always proper undergarments and then socks and then this black stump of shoe and the shoe can’t really be that expressive.
Now add to that. I had childhood bunions. Hmm. So even as I grew older, I had to wear pretty heavy solid Oxford’s and shoes that would have a really thick almost two inch high plastic sole insert that would hold my foot in the proper shape as it was growing so I could not wear any kind of pretty shoe after that diagnosis. I think that would have been about second grade or so. Being a public school girl in a homemade dress in the 70s when all the girls are wearing pants and jeans withc decidedly the ugliest big clunky shoes sometimes that were even literally from my brother on the playground was my norm.
When I left home and was on my own and making clothing decisions that were unaffected by any church relationship because I had left the church and stopped dressing Mennonite when I was a teen, I bought these flat Mary Jane’s that you buy in Chinatown for $3-$4. They are fabric with little to no shoe support. When I was 18 I had my bunion surgery for the correction of the bunions so I had to wear a flat and open shoe. These fit the bill and were inexpensive, so you could buy multiple pairs you can have them in various fabrics or different colors. On my student income, I could afford to start a collection of shoes. So these were my favorite shoes for the four years of college and probably wrecked my feet all over again.
In the next pictures you can see all of the kinds of variations of Mary Janes that I own. They are all a flat or or modest kind of a stumpy heel. I like a little bit of a chunky heel. And a good slight platform at the front just like the ones I just bought. The brown ones here that are in both of the pictures on the centering right hand are by a company called Jambu that happily does different versions of Mary Janes every season. This is one of my favorite brands and they are just a little bit fun and just a little bit conservative. I can wear them for work, with professional dress code or with fun skirts for casual too.
Julie Steiner is a museum professional, shoe lover and collector and knitter extraordinaire.
Want to hear much more about Mary Janes, the controversy, the academia and developing a personal style? Listen to our discussion on my KindredSoles podcast.