Or, why Victoria's Secret workers can sell sexy lingerie but can't wear open-toed shoes
Editor's note: this week, Skyway News debuts "It's a Living," a column on Downtown's workplace culture by local writer Elena Centor. It's less about the bottom line than how human relations really work in a place where we spend a lot of our waking lives.
Until two weeks ago, I thought wearing open-toed shoes was fashion-forward. Now I know it's corporately controversial.
I had no idea that by baring my toes, I was sending messages I might not want to send. I was not aware that wearing open-toed shoes to work was tantamount to wearing a Scarlet Letter.
My friend Denise, who's a banking industry consultant, was the first to inform me she would never wear open-toed shoes on a client call. We had just finished lunch and were walking back to her office through the skyway when we stopped briefly at one of our favorite shoe departments. I watched as Denise picked up an open-toed dress shoe, and put it down as quickly.
"Why wouldn't you wear an open-toed shoe to work?" I asked naively, picking up the shoe to see what the problem was.
"Well," she started, trying to be diplomatic, "It would be considered extremely unprofessional. The banking industry is conservative. The women all wear pumps."
It reminded me of when I was 11 years old and living in a small town in Appalachia. We were "imported Yankees" and often not aware of local custom. Being unaware, my family thought it was perfectly fine for me to walk home from school.
But, I found out differently. One day I asked my friend Beth to join me. She asked her mother, who firmly said, "No. Ladies don't walk."
Some 40 years later, I learn ladies don't wear open-toed shoes to work. Where have I been?
Several days after learning about my open-toed faux pas, I was wearing my conservative closed-toed black flats as I waited for a prospective client in the lobby of her Fortune 500 office. When the security guard called, he got her voicemail (what a surprise). With time on my hands, I decided to count toes. Lucky for me, the lobby is right on the skyway, with quite a bit of foot traffic for me to track.
My findings? It was split right down the middle--50/50. Which led me to the conclusion that at least at this Fortune 500 Company, open-toed shoes were not pedis non gratis.
But one company does not make a trend. My friend Janie works for a private college with a written policy forbidding open-toed shoes unless you are wearing pantyhose or socks. Now that's a fashion statement.
These are not isolated incidents. The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times have both devoted newsprint to open-toed shoes in the workplace. Some say the taboo is based on grooming concerns, while others say it's because open-toed shoes make a woman's foot look sexy. (Maybe if you're Sarah Jessica Parker, but I guarantee my size 10 1/2 tootsies would not be categorized as sexy.)
How serious is the open-toed shoe controversy? According to the Times, even Victoria's Secret's dress code forbids open-toed shoes. Just in case this was a misprint or old news, I made a personal visit to the mall to check it out. Not an open-toed shoe on the sales floor.
I was still having a hard time understanding the underpinnings of this controversy until I came across a passage in Nuala O'Faolain's best-selling novel, My Dream of You. The main character, Kate, explains her theory that painted toes signaled how feminine a girl was, deep down, even if she didn't make any other show of it.
Finally, I understood. The controversy isn't about grooming. Or being sexy. It's about femininity. Corporate America prefers women in pumps because Corporate America wants to deal with women who choose not to show how feminine they are -- deep down.