Palazzo style

Jonathan Self: “Shoes are part of what it means to be human – they were invented 4,000 years before the wheel”

Giving away his suits was one thing, but Jonathan Self struggled with his classic brogues.

Ever since I ditched the loonies (for readers too young to remember those 1970s fashion disasters, they were low-rise bellbottom pants), tie-dye t-shirts and platform boots in favor of classic English tailoring, my wardrobe hasn’t seen such a shake-up. The thing is, I fell under the Rasputin charm of a brilliant Florentine tailor, Paolo Romagnoli (I’ve been haunting the town since we enrolled the twins in the Canadian school here). One fitting was enough to persuade me that my existing costumes were outdated and needed to go.

Paolo, aided and abetted by Rose, moved me to softer fabrics, livelier linings and sharper cuts. The good news is that I now look so Italian that I’m not bothered by touts anymore. The bad news is that it caused what could best be described as a calzature crisis. It’s been clear for some time that narrower pants with a slightly shorter break and black laces don’t mix well. I had no problem donating my bespoke suits, but when it came to removing my oxfords, I had a hard time.

Our relationship with shoes is surprisingly complex. They are both what connects us and separates us from the earth. As the 8th century Buddhist monk Shantideva pointed out when he put on his shoes: it was as if he “covered the whole world in leather”. About 1,000 years later, Gerard Manley Hopkins made a similar complaint: “The ground/Is bare now, and the feet cannot smell, being shod.” At school, we learned about the Greek giant Antaeus, who was invincible as long as he remained in physical contact with the ground.

“Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you have his shoes”

Shoes are part of what it means to be human. They were invented, after all, 4,000 years before the wheel. No wonder they feature in ancient myths – think of talarthe winged sandals worn by Hermès—in phrase (“if the shoe fits,” “dead man’s shoes,” and “comfortable as an old shoe,” to begin with) and in fable (The galoshes of fortune, Puss in Boots and Cinderella).

In some cultures empty shoes symbolize death, in others taking off one’s shoes symbolizes the act of giving up a legal right. Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus remove their shoes before entering a place of worship. Van Gogh had what could be described as his “shoe period”, painting and repainting the subject. We even joke about them: “Before judging a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. After that, who cares? He’s a mile away and you have his shoes. My grandfather, who took a size 14, was so afraid that his children and grandchildren would have feet bigger than him that in the 1930s he ordered dozens of shoes in sizes 15, 16 and 17 , which he has stored in a cedar attic.

The thing is, I had a hard time parting with my shoes until this week, when, as a birthday present, Rose took me to the 13th-century Palazzo Spini Ferroni, which for 100 years has been the home of the cobbler to the stars Salvatore Ferragamo. Here, with the help of Matteo Di Egidio, perhaps the most learned (“Warhol preferred this design”; “These take over 168 separate steps to do”; “Popular with politicians on their feet all day” ) seller around the world, I was finally persuaded to buy a pair of brown loafers (yes, brown in town!), to wear with red socks from Gammarelli, the pope’s hosiery suppliers. Incorrect quote from the Song of Songs: “How beautiful are my feet shod in moccasins.


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