Wendy Davis’ Sneakers -The Toast

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Anna: Boy, I’m tired, Haley! Ask me why I’m so tired.

Haley: Why are you so tired, Anna?

Anna: WELL. I was up late the other night watching a pretty exciting filibuster. Then I was on my feet all day working. I have a day job in retail–I’m not just the beautiful writer you see before you. When you’re on your feet, you’ve gotta have some good footwear, and…I’m really tired, I’m just trying to come up with a good transition.

Haley: Good transition!

Anna: Thank you.

Haley: And see, now we’re talking about sneakers and filibusters! So. What I liked about the fact that Wendy Davis came to the floor of the Texas Senate wearing sneakers, was that it was one of those moments where the choice of clothing highlighted her intentions.

Anna: Right.

Haley: She came prepared to do what had to get done, you know?

Anna:  Mm-hmm.

Haley: It was a very prominent symbol. A woman in politics wouldn’t usually pair her nice, tasteful blazer and matching skirt with sneakers.

Anna: I just loved the way it looked. I loved seeing the way she styled it, from that formal suit to these bright pink beautiful shoes. It had me thinking about the way women’s business wear is designed, and I think about–to be fair, it’s not like men show up to work in sweats and whatnot, but they have nothing that really matches the discomfort of heels. And I love high heels, and I am a high heel apologist, but they’re not really suitable for standing on your feet for long periods of time. Heels, man!

Haley: Yeah! The patriarchy! And speaking of patriarchy–in this instance specifically, but obviously I always love talking about the patriarchy–there was so much conversation, as soon as Wendy started talking, that connected to her sneakers. And that’s something I did love, because it was an example of people thinking critically about shoes beyond, “Oh well, these are just something you use to cover your feet.” These sneakers meant something. They meant that she was there for business and not stupid shitty normal politics business. She was standing on her feet, no matter what, to defeat this bill.

Anna: I think it’s a question of how we approach talking about the sneakers, so we’re not discussing what a woman who happens to be a public figure wore at the expense of what she said. Hillary Clinton has said that if she wants to make the front page of the news, she just has to change her hairstyle. If Senator Davis wants to make the cover of the New York Times, she has to wear pink sneakers. But the sneakers she was wearing were nice, new, and they were hot pink, and wearing them was such a conscious decision.

Obviously she was aware she was going to be looked at, and I think that was such a powerful decision to make, to be unapologetically feminine about it. Because she is a woman in a room filled with men, she is a woman trying to take power back from men, she is a woman telling the stories of other women, spending thirteen hours talking to stop the bill, and she’s doing it in bright pink shoes, which is kind of awesome. I’m trying to think of a better word.

Haley: I think awesome is exactly right. I want to talk about how sneakers themselves are funny, because sneakers are a kind of nothing item. Sneakers and jeans and t-shirts, they’re default clothing items. But in this instance, they really stood out as unusual. Sneakers, to me, have always seemed like the type of item that really depend on their context, like jeans, which can be just blue cotton and can also retail for $400.

I feel like I tend to think of sneakers as something you wear when you’re commuting on the subway and, say, carrying your heels in your purse to your office job. Thats what sneakers are intended for, I think, if you’re a certain type of working woman. They’re for working out and other practical things. But on the flip side, the last time I was in SoHo, I was going to go to the Nike store just to look around and I couldn’t even get in. There was a line of people around the block waiting for the release of some premium sneaker, you know, for the status of it. There is a long-documented history of sneaker culture and sneakers as status symbols. I just love the way all these different parallels can exist in this one kind of shoe, and I also love how that would have been lost if Senator Davis had just worn a pair of loafers instead.

Anna: Right.

Haley: Which would have been equally comfortable, maybe, but wouldn’t have had the same significance.

Anna: Up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t even have a pair of sneakers. My casual shoes were just flats or boots. But when I was waitressing, I finally went out and bought a pair of black Pumas. My current retail job is at a two-story bookstore, and I have to carry a lot of heavy boxes of books. I wear cute dresses to work, but I’ll usually wear my Pumas with them. Last month, when I went on this first date with this guy, I wanted to look cool but I was coming straight from work. I had this new skirt, I had my makeup done and this cute shirt on, and I wore it with my sneakers. Just one of those things where I was thinking, “I am a busy business woman who works several jobs to support my creative endeavors, so I’m going to wear these shoes even when I go out.” They’re not hot pink, but they’re necessary to get my job done. Buying those sneakers was the first time in a long time that I bought clothes for purely practical reasons.

Haley: But it automatically became a fashion item for you, because you’re just a fashion person.

Anna: Yes! Because I needed something to wear to a date downtown, but now they’re also something I regularly wear to WORN–my fashion magazine job–on the days I’m not at my retail job.

Haley: Similarly, when you wear a pair of sneakers, on you they’re never going to look like a straightforward, utilitarian decision. It’s always going to be something that you make into something fashionable. Wendy Davis, wasn’t just going to dress like a businesswoman wearing sneakers on her way into the office. It was always going to be a symbol of political power because she has achieved an incredible level of political power right now. The shoes became intrinsically tied to that, I think.

Anna: In the eighth issue of WORN–the shoe issue–there’s an article about the sneaker. Here’s a brief history, so we’re all caught up: introduced in the 30s and 40s as a basketball shoe, commodified in the 1970s as a huge part of hip-hop culture, with sneaker collecting beginning at the same time. Collecting would go to secondhand stores, trying to find sneakers that no one else had. Nike and Adidas caught on, and they started to market more and more sneakers that were less about practical use, like for playing basketball, and more about something purely stylish. There’s a whole exhibition about the history of the sneaker at The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto right now.

There was a turning point in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when Spike Lee and Michael Jordan did Nike commercials. You had these two iconic figures, Michael Jordan at the peak of his career, and Spike Lee on his way up, and then these commercials created an association between sneakers and these two specific prominent figures: the most famous athlete in the world, and a filmmaker who was also an outspoken activist about the marginalization of black people in America. Nike knew this, and knew how to capitalize on their association with hip-hop and basketball. They would intentionally market their shoes as a status symbol.

So I’m thinking, what does it mean that Senator Davis is wearing designer sneakers to talk about women’s right to make their own choices in 2013? The sneakers are meant to support her, to show that she means business, to show that she’s ready to abuse her body, to stand and talk for eleven hours without rest, a kind of torture, in order to help women all over Texas control their own bodies–

Haley: But she made this one concession with her feet, right?

Anna:  Right.

Haley: Like, she was not going to put her physical body through hell on top of what she was already professionally committing to, but she was going to take necessary precautions to protect her feet.

Sometimes I think about this very sad reality in politics, which also applies to fashion, which is that the smallest, most basic signs of progress are often not even progress, just trying to hold things as they are. But it’s those steps that are most analyzed, the most debated. So I don’t want to dismiss what she wore as something that just “doesn’t matter” because our clothing choices always matter. When you’re a woman in politics, there is only so much creativity you’re allowed in your outfits. So even when she was bending the rules she still had to be business on top.

Anna: And its just so interesting to me that the way dressing respectable today usually means dressing in suits. A lot of the ideal “professional” outfits tend to look like what a rich, white male would wear to the office. I mean, Wendy was dressed in a feminine way, she was dressed professionally, but even her sneakers were pink. This is something women in power struggle with all the time. To be taken seriously; but they get criticized for being too feminine or not being feminine enough, which is another reason the pink sneakers are so powerful.

I was also thinking the other big rock star of that night, Senator Leticia Van de Putte, who had everyone applauding and cheering, this really wonderful moment. But then I had this moment where I was like, well, what was she wearing then? I had posted a photo of her on the Rookie Tumblr, this photo of her talking, and then realized it was from another event. I couldn’t even remember what Wendy was wearing the night of the filibuster, beyond her footwear. The only thing I remember that anyone was wearing last night, male or female, were the pink sneakers. That’s partly because I was listening to what was being said, but it’s also because Wendy was the only one who departed from the traditional political attire. I also think clothes are such a revealing aspect of character and narrative. There’s that Seamus Gallagher illustration on Tumblr that Fiona posted in her article, that has become a symbol for the whole event. Like, when the inevitable Oscar-Bait-y “Stand With Wendy” movie starring Hillary Swank comes out five years from now, that could be the poster.

Haley: Yeah. I do think if we were to ask Senator Davis why she wore those sneakers she would just say, “Oh I wasn’t even really thinking about it, I just knew I was going to be on my feet all day, so I picked the shoes that made the most sense.” But you and I and other Wornettes know there’s almost always a thought process there, that those kinds of clothing choices don’t just happen.

When you are a woman, and especially a woman in the public eye, there is a relationship between item you’ve chosen and the response of the people looking at what you chose, and sometimes those two separate things don’t add up. I mean, if she had been wearing heels, would anyone have remarked on her shoes? If she had been wearing standard-issue politician’s heels, would the story have been “She stood for eleven hours in heels”? No, because that’s seen as the standard attire for women. That’s the default attire. She moved away from the default attire and that is why the shoes are news.

Obviously I recognize why when it comes to women in politics is it so often about their bodies and their clothes. It’s a way of dismissing what they’re saying. So much of the conversation became, “Oh, it’s funny that she’s in pink sneakers!” Like that New York Times piece referring to Davis as “a petite blonde,” not even naming her. I cannot remember the last time I read “a tall, balding man in loafers took the stand today.” That just doesn’t happen. A man’s appearance, particularly a white man in power, is rarely up for questioning.

Anna: It’s funny that heels are the default when sneakers are just way more practical. Heels would have been a ridiculous choice for her to wear. She was literally dressed for the job yesterday, but it became a statement. I do hope that by discussing Senator Davis’ clothing we can talk about the role clothing plays, the significance of particular items and how loaded they can be as a symbol, without dismissing her role as a politician. That is such a dangerous game to play, because focusing on clothing so often marginalizes female politicians, instead of recognizing the political power inherent to clothing choices.

Haley: And right now Wendy Davis has some real power, and her sneakers are a symbol of that power. So, like, suck on that, patriarchy.

Anna: Yes, let’s kick patriarchal ass. With our sneakers. With our hot pink sneakers

Haley Mlotek is the publisher of WORN Fashion Journal. Her writing has appeared in WORN (obviously), as well as Hazlitt and The Hairpin. She believes in reading, writing, and red lipstick. 

Anna Fitzpatrick is a Toronto writer and bookseller. Her work has appeared in WORN (obviously), Rookie Mag, The Hairpin, The Toronto Standard, and too many middle school diaries that she is trying to forget about.

WORN Fashion Journal is a completely different kind of fashion magazine. An independent print publication based in Toronto, Canada, WORN discusses the histories, personal stories, cultures, and subcultures of fashion.

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