Boots That Count

International readers may never have heard of her, but back in my homeland, Carol Vorderman MBE is a bit of a national treasure. She co-hosted the popular gameshow Countdown for 26 years (1982-2006), one of 19 TV programs she has presented; she has been a strong advocate for math education in the UK; and she is the only celebrity to have won “Rear of the Year” twice, the second time (2014) when she was 54 years old. What lifted her into the realms of this blog, however, was a rumor that I heard years ago that, when she was a student at Cambridge in the late 1970s, she was known as “Boots” Vorderman.

Obviously this was worthy of further investigation. So I turned to “It All Counts: My Story” (2010), which as you may have guessed from the title is Vorderman’s autobiography. And here is the story, as described by the lady herself. To set the scene: in October 1978, 17 year old Carol Jean Vorderman of Prestatyn, North Wales, comes up to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences at Sidney Sussex College. It is fair to say that she does not blend in to the anonymous mob of undergraduates…

Standard uniform for all students in Cambridge in those days was a pair of jeans, a college scarf and trainers. I was absolutely determined not to change what I would normally wear just to look like everyone else. In those days I loved to dress in a 70s glam rock style. Abba were at their height, and there were definite shades of Agnetha in my day-to-day outfits.

“Pride of my wardrobe was a pair of thigh-length leather boots. I wore these boots virtually every single day, teamed with the tightest velveteen trousers, a white shirt and a matching bow tie. That’s how I got my college nickname of Boots Vorderman. Not very original, I suppose, but that’s what it was.

“If I had worn normal jeans and trainers, I would have reached my lectures at least four times faster than I did. But instead I would attempt to cycle to the engineering department with my thigh-length boots on, which made each turn of the pedals difficult. The tightly hugging trousers didn’t help much either, but I refused to be beaten. I raised the seat of my bike really high, so that I didn’t have to flex my leather-clad knees quite as much, which meant my bottom was so high from the ground that my bike resembled a penny farthing. But I didn’t care. I simply set out with plenty of time to spare and wobbled my way to lectures.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while will know that the late 1970s saw the brief return of over-the-knee boots to mainstream fashion popularity. From 1977, when Karl Lagerfeld introduced them in his Fall collection for Chloe, through to around 1981/82, OTK boots were, if not common, than at least high profile, due in no small part to their adoption by a number of celebrities (see here for an example of this). Carol Vorderman was not famous in 1978 – that would come four years later, when she first appeared on TV – but she plainly had the fashion sensibilities of a celebrity.

And there, of course, lies the problem. It would be great to illustrate this little personal vignette of late-70s fashion history with a photo of Carol in all her Cambridge glory, but the likelihood of such photos floating around on the internet is quite low. However, it turns out that if we can’t see Boots Vorderman, we can at least see her boots. Because, as Carol notes in the book:

Years late I wore those same boots when I was Cher in Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes, proving that a good pair of boots never dies!

Twenty years later, as it happens, in 1998. And for that, we do have photos (and even video).

Now, even Vorderman admits that this was probably not her finest hour, being more Rocky Horror Show than Cher, but if we ignore the excess of leather and fishnet (to say nothing of the “get me out of here” look of horror on Carol’s face) we can see that this is a pretty respectable pair of late-70s thighboots, complete with flaring top, rounded toe, and slender stack heels.

As for her Cambridge education, Carol Vorderman achieved the remarkable feat of getting a third in each year of the Tripos exams, making her a member of the exclusive “Nines” club. My experience of people that get third class degrees from Oxford or Cambridge is that they almost invariably go on to greater success than those who win higher class honors, and this is certainly true for her. Not only that, but at 57 she looks as good as she did forty years ago. Keep on counting, Carol.

Reference:

  • Vorderman, Carol. 2010. It All Counts: My Story. Headline Publishing Group, United Kingdom

Image Sources:

No Pain, No Gain

In 2002, a British teenager called Charlie Gowans-Eglinton took a weekend trip to Paris with her mother. Reflecting back on the trip in 2017, Gowans-Eglinton, now a fashion editor for the Daily Telegraph, recalled that “we drank coffee and did the galleries and, having spotted stylish French women wearing them, bought my first pair of knee-high boots, which I insisted on wearing straight away. Somewhere between the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo I lost feeling in my toes, and so ended my first, and only, experience of knee-high boots.”

I have great sympathy for Gowans-Eglinton, because she had her first experience with the fashion boot when it was, without doubt, at its least forgiving. Women’s boots in the years surrounding the Millennium were a triumph of style over comfort; wickedly tight, perched on pencil-thin stiletto heels, and with a toe so pointed that it looked like it had been weaponized for some James Bond movie. Contemporary news articles highlighted the pain caused by trying to fit the aerobicized calves of the fashionable Millennial woman into the glove tight shafts of these boots.

The designers, of course, were unrepentant. Quoted in the New York Observer in 2000, Miranda Morrison of Sigerson Morrison, justified her company’s wickedly tight boots by saying “We made a decision … to cater to the shapeliest legs, just because that’s how the product looks the best. I mean, you know there are companies who try and fit everybody, and the result is that, for a lot of stylish girls, their boots fit like Wellingtons!… You can put your leg into a smaller boot… you may spend a couple of days wondering where your toes are.”

If anyone can be blamed for this, it’s probably Gianni Versace. His 1995 fall ready-to-wear collection had introduced a new style of boot that, in many ways, it was a high-legged equivalent of the popular high-heeled pumps of this period, combining the stiletto heel and pointed toe of the pump with a glove-tight leather upper climbing to just below the knee. It was stunning, and it was almost unwearable, but it inspired a flurry of late nineties imitators. “Out of fashion for decades,” the Toronto Star reported in September 1995, “[the boot] is now striding onto centre stage in kid-soft leather or gleaming patent, on high stacked heels or short, dagger-sharp stilettos. There haven’t been so many boots in fashion since Nancy Sinatra first grabbed a microphone.”

Ironically, by the time the young Charlie Gowans-Eglinton was trying out her first pair, mainstream shoe designers were modifying the dress boot to place place less demands on the wearer. The toes were squared off, at least at the tip, to reduce wear and tear on the feet; the fit of the shaft was loosened, especially round the ankle; and stilettos made way for stack heels, easier to walk in. A frequent, and very distinctive variant on this style was the “compressed stack;” viewed in profile, it looked like a stiletto, but from the rear it was apparent that the heel ran the full width of the boot and went straight to the ground without any taper. This revised design was to become a key element of what a 2011 New Yorker article described as “… the professional woman’s default uniform of the moment: a smart knit dress in a dark color, worn with knee-high black leather boots.”

Today, of course, there is every manner of boot to fit almost any need. When my own daughter picked out her first pair, a year or so back, they were low-heeled, round-toed, and with a shaft that was relaxed enough that they can be zipped up with minimal effort. There are no complaints about numb toes. Reviewing this season’s knee-length designs for the Telegraph, Gowans-Eglinton was in a forgiving mood. “As I’ll be 30 on my next birthday, I reckon it’s probably time I gave them another go.”

Image Sources:

  • “Key Pieces for Fall – The High Boot” – Marie Claire, ca. 1999
  • Gianni Versace advertisement by Richard Avedon, 1995

Selected References:

  • Gowans-Eglinton, Charlie. 2017. Every type of boot that you should have in your Autumn ‘boot wardrobe.’ Daily Telegraph, October 18, 2017.
  • Hayes, Tracy Achor. 1995. Step Into Style With the Appropriate Fall Footgear. Toronto Star, Sep 7, 1995: pg. F6.
  • Jacobs, Alexandra. 2000. Das Boots: Women Beg for Torture, Wrapping Calves in Tight Leather. New York Observer, October 16, 2000
  • Mead, Rebecca. 2011. Strategy Session: The Pipeline, The New Yorker, Jan 10, 2011

 

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The Red Boots

There’s a Spanish movie from 1974 called La mujer con botas rojas, which translates as “The Woman in Red Boots.” Catherine Deneuve plays the woman in question, who wears her pants tucked into a quite unremarkable pair of red leather knee-length boots for pretty much the whole film. It was directed by Juan Luis Buñuel, who is the son of the much more famous Luis Buñuel, with whom Deneuve made the much more famous Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970). In it, Deneuve plays an avante garde writer who gets manipulated by an elderly millionaire; however, the tables are turned when it emerges that she can summon up apparitions and recall visions of the past. I cribbed that plot summary from IMDB because, despite having watched the movie once on late night TV, I can remember absolutely nothing about it.

This post is not about that film, or those boots.

Around the time Deneuve was conjuring her apparitions in La mujer con botas rojas, David Gilmour, guitarist (and co-vocalist) for seventies rock giants Pink Floyd, received a demo tape from a friend, Ricky Hopper. Hopper was also friends with a family from Welling, in southeast London, whose teenage daughter was a musical prodigy who played the violin, organ, and piano and composed her own songs. Fifty of these youthful compositions were crammed onto the tape, which must have been a daunting prospect for any listener. But Gilmour was impressed by what he heard and forked out his own cash to pay for professionally-recorded demos of three of the songs. On the strength of these, sixteen year-old Catherine Bush, better known as Kate, was signed by EMI.

I am, I will freely admit, a huge Kate Bush fan, although to be honest I much prefer her first three albums – The Kick Inside (1978), Lionheart (1979), and Never Forever (1980) – which represent the unleashing of a huge burst of creative energy that had built up during the two years of her contract, when she was placed on a retainer by EMI and paid an advance that enabled her to take classes in mime and interpretive dance. The reasons for the company’s largesse are a matter of debate, ranging from altruism (EMI wanted to protect the youthful Bush from the potential trauma of releasing an album early to poor reviews), to cold-eyed commercial calculus (they wanted to lock her down before she had a chance to sign with another record label), to incompetence (the initial producers hired to work with her were no good).

Regardless of the reason, EMI’s caution in bringing Bush to the attention of the public paid big dividends. By the time she began recording her first album, in the late summer of 1977, she had written over 200 songs and honed her live skills by performing with her backing band in South London pubs. More especially, she had worked to combine music, song, and dance into the unique style of performance art that was to make her such a distinctive star of the late seventies and early eighties. By the end of 1977, Kate Bush was ready to meet her public. Which she did, in a very impressive pair of red boots.

The middle years of the 1970s had seen a shift away from more tailored clothes towards what Vogue called “the new ease in fashion;” oversized sweaters; loose-fitting, pleated skirts; wool, tweed, and peasant headscarves. Boots were a big part of this look; in contrast to the zippered, calf-hugging styles popular at the time, the new boot was loose-fitting, touching the leg rather than clinging to it, and falling in extravagant folds as the soft leather crushed around the ankle. Rather than having heels that were covered in the same material as the boot itself, the new boot featured stacked heels in material like wood. By 1975, the New York Times was referring to this style as “The Boot of the Year.”

Flash forward to when the young Kate Bush was fronting her band at the Rose of Lee in Lewisham and the boot was reigning supreme. “It’s lucky that shoemakers are almost all bootmakers too,” Barbara Griggs reported from the 1977 Paris Fall collections. “Otherwise they’d be grimly facing bankruptcy.” Griggs estimated that around 90 percent of the models on the Paris catwalks that season were wearing boots of some sort. “Ankle-high boots, calf-high boots, knee-high boots, and thigh-high boots. Boots that laced-up and boots you simply slid into. Boots made of soft sheepskin, shiny calf or dressy satin. Boots that invariably had low heels for daytime.” The variety of boots seen in Paris was, in Griggs’ words, “staggering.”

Most notably, 1977 saw the re-emergence of the over-the-knee boot after a six-year gap. Reporters covering that year’s Fall ready-to-wear shows in Paris were full of praise for Karl Lagerfeld’s collection for Chloe. Lagerfeld had been much taken with Federico Fellini’s Casanova released in December of the previous year and decided to produce a collection based on the eighteenth century costumes seen in the movie. But rather than women’s clothing from that period (which he declared to be “uninteresting”) Lagerfeld chose instead to design a collection for women that was influenced by the flamboyant male clothing of the period. So we have broad-brimmed cavalier hats, capes, velvet and satin breeches, lace trimmed blouses, and lots of swaggering over-the-knee boots.

The look caught on. By May of 1977, Bernadine Morris was reporting in the New York Times that a growing number of retailers on 7th Avenue were featuring knee-baring dresses for fall, also noting that high boots, thick tights, should be used to offset increased leg exposure. By the time the glossies started covering the fall fashions, in their July editions, over-the-knee boots were high on the list of accessories. In its review of shoes for the 1977 fall season, Vogue hailed “a great-looking new over-the-knee boot to bear with a tunic top and textured legs… or a thick Shaker sweater and matching leggings. Or to pull on over the narrowest narrowed pants and cuff down (boots are that soft this year!) sometimes to show its cozy shearling lining.”

A thick sweater and shearling-lined over-the knee boots. In early 1978 Kate Bush went on a round of promotional interviews for The Kick Inside wearing just such an outfit, or variations on it. In March, the NME carried a profile of the new star, describing her as “neither doll-like, nor petite, though hardly tall. Her faded jeans are mostly concealed under a pair of sheepskin-lined, thigh-high, reddish suede boots, and are in marked contrast to her very feminine fringed top.” Here I have to take issue with the NME’s Steve Clarke, because those boots are most definitely not suede, but leather. I know this because Bush was possibly at the height of her fame (or at least its first peak), with the first single from the album, Wuthering Heights, at number 1 on the UK charts, and she was photographed everywhere in those boots. Sometimes with a sweater, sometimes the fringed top, and occasionally a silk chinoiserie blouse. But always the boots.

They were quite sturdy boots, made from heavy leather with a chunky heel and thick soles, more buccaneer than boutique, and quite the contrast with the image portrayed by Bush through her music, which tended towards floaty dresses, dance leotards, and unearthly vocals. The contrast was mirrored in Bush herself. I still remember being shocked when I first saw her interviewed on the TV. I’d imagined that the owner of that ethereal singing voice would speak in delicate tones of Received Pronunciation, but Bush’s accent was pure South London.

bc2dd5943ffdab81d3230a26122fa4f7It was hard to escape from Wuthering Heights in 1978; those piercing vocals seemed to be everywhere. It spent four weeks at number 1 on the UK pop charts and ended up being one of the most played records on the radio that year (as well as the tenth best selling single*). My brother had recently moved to North Yorkshire and my memories of that time involve a lot of driving around wet moorland of the sort that had inspired Emily Brontë’s Gothic masterpiece, which had, in turn, inspired Bush. Wuthering Heights was an ever-present accompaniment on the car radio.

Interestingly – at least from the narrow perspective of this blog – March of 1977 saw a chart showdown between the red booted Bush and her black booted rival for seventies pop superstardom, Debbie Harry of Blondie. Blondie’s single Denis was kept off the top spot of the UK charts by Bush (and then suffered the ignominy of being leapfrogged by Brian & Michael’s Matchstalk Men & Matchstalk Cats & Dogs; Google it to see just how bad that one was), although the American act was to have by far the greatest number of hits overall. Kate Bush continued (and continues) to plow her own idiosyncratic course, with variable mass success but a passionate fan base. In 1993, she released an album entitled The Red Shoes, but since 1978 the red boots have, sadly, been consigned to the back of the pop closet.

Note:

* If 10th place seems a little underwhelming, bear in mind that this was the year of two Grease-powered John Travolta & Olivia Newton John hits, to say nothing of ABBA and the Bee Gees, so it was not a bad effort for a first single. Although she did get beaten by the Boomtown Rats as well.

Selected References:

  • Anon. Shoe Signals. Vogue, July 1977: pp.98-103
  • Anon. Walk Right In…. All the Terrific New Stockings & Socks, Shoes & Boots”, Vogue, July 1977: pp142–143
  • Clarke, Steve. Kate Bush City Limits. New Musical Express, March 25, 1978.
  • The Daily Mail, March 31, 1977: pg. 15
  • Griggs, Barbara. Bootnote… Down to Earth Detail. The Daily Mail, March 31, 1977: pg. 15
  • Morris, Bernadine. At Lagerfeld’s Paris show, the 18th Century goes modern. New York Times, March 29, 1977: pg.41.
  • Morris, Bernadine. Message is in From Paris – Bubbly, Bloused and Billowy. New York Times, April 5, 1977; pg.24