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Cari Carlson: "What Would Diderot Say?"

If clothes make the man, it stands to reason they make the woman too. Maybe even more so. But where does it all end? 

Cari Carlson shares her essay, What Would Diderot Say?

Does a shopworn, aging hippie need a makeover to wear “Fancy Nancy” shoes?

I haven’t bought any shoes for at least three years. Maybe it’s time.  Full disclosure: I can’t afford my bunions, flat feet, and crooked toes, so my shoes end up just like my cars. I wear them until they fall apart. I drive my cars until my mechanic says, “Cari, it’s time to look for something else.” And then, sometimes I do.

It’s quiet at the shoe store. My friend Denise and I have the full attention of the salesperson that shows us a parade of modestly priced shoes. Denise buys two pair off the sale rack. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I up the ante and ask the salesperson to show me shoes that might accommodate my misshapen feet. I whine about the price of the German-made sandals she brings in from the back room until she says, “Look at the stitches. They’re perfectly made and they were not done by a machine.”  She points to the line that defines the perimeter of the sole. “The German women take the shoes home after work to hand sew those stitches. Each shoe takes three days.”

I take a closer look. She could be right. They don’t look machine perfect. “Well then,” I say, “I’ll try them on.”    

Of course they fit. My flat foot gently curves around the arch; my bunions nestle inside the Velcro straps; the crooked toes, inconspicuous next to those hand-sewed stitches, almost disappear.

I’m in love and mutter under my breath about a second mortgage on my home as I stroll around the store, feet perfectly cushioned.  That’s when the salesperson says, “Looks like you have champagne feet on a beer budget.” Bingo. She read my mind.

While I dither over those sandals, Denise finds a purse. Then she finds an identical purse for me in a different color and refuses to let me see the tag.

At this point we need a time out. Instead, we leave with three pairs of shoes and two purses. I don’t look when I sign the credit card receipt, figure I won’t see the bill until the end of the month.

If it’s true that accessories make the outfit, then I nailed it with my elegant hand-stitched shoes and my trendy hot pink purse. If I believe what my daughter says, “Looking good is all about shoes and hair,” then at least I’m halfway there.

We go to brunch the next morning dressed in jeans and our new shoes. We artfully arrange our matching purses over our shoulders and saunter into the restaurant. This is my “Fancy Nancy” outfit. The best I can do. Four women at a table by the door call us over and one of them says, “You two are so chic and edgy. Love the purses and the shoes.” Denise and I high-five. That was a first. We’re hot!

As we walk to our table, I notice a woman staring at my feet. I tuck them under the table and whisper to Denise, “Do I need a pedicure?  Should decorate my gnarly toenails before I strut in these five-star sandals?”  She doesn’t answer, but then she has perfect feet and normal toes, pretty little explanation points that peek out from the end of her sandals.    

If I get a pedicure, then I’d better sign on for a manicure. I suppose I should get my hair cut at a salon instead of cutting it myself. I’ll need makeup, blush, eye shadow, mascara, all the products women smear on their faces to upgrade their appearance. Better yet, I’ll schedule a facelift, and as long as I’m under the knife, I’ll add a tummy tuck.

I’ll take my enhanced body to the mall to buy more shoes and some designer clothes to complement my new stylish look. But first I’ll consult Harper’s Bazaar and Anna Wintour. She knows how to wear color.

While I’m at it, I should do something about my house. I don’t want to come home to that dingy, grey, dilapidated front door when I look like I just stepped out of Vogue. It makes the house look trashy now that the ancient grey asphalt is covered with trendy sage green siding. I can easily replace the door, but then something will have to be done about the overgrown garden. The bars on the basement windows need to go and so does the peeling paint on the tuck pointed bricks. Then I’m not sure I’ll want to park my twelve-year-old Ford with its rusting fenders directly in front of my updated home.

I wonder what Denis Diderot would say? In 1769 he wrote an essay entitled “Parting With My Old Dressing Gown.” He wrote a fictional account of receiving a gift, a scarlet, silk dressing gown that looked out of place among the well-worn furniture in his study. He discarded his beloved, tattered dressing gown and began replacing bookcases, rugs, pictures, everything that now appeared shabby. He sent his straw chair, the one that fit his body like an old glove, to another room and replaced it with a chair covered with stiff leather. He became an unfortunate slave to that elegant gift because now everything he owned had to reflect the quality of his new scarlet silk dressing gown.

     At brunch I splash coffee down the front of my carefully selected outfit. Denise bites into an eggy croissant sandwich and runny yolk squirts down the front of her white tee and drips on her jeans. Oh well. We were once chic and edgy. Twenty minutes ago we had our fifteen minutes. It felt good. As for those gnarly toenails, please don’t look.

Cari Carlson is a freelance writer, outdoor guide in the west and overseas, and a former environmental educator. She lives in Milwaukee.

Cari Taylor-Carlson travels the world with a backpack and a tent. She taught environmental education at Schlitz Audubon and the Boerner Botanical Gardens, founded the Milwaukee Walking and Eating Society and wrote Milwaukee Walks, The Food Lover's Guide To Milwaukee and Best Cheap Eats. She continues to write The Dish for M Magazine and guide hiking trips with her business Venture West.
Bonnie North
Bonnie joined WUWM in March 2006 as the Arts Producer of the locally produced weekday magazine program Lake Effect.