Women's Fashion

Not so plain Mary Janes

Looking for an alternative to the current vogue for clumpy, ‘extreme’ footwear, Karen Wheeler finds a stealth shoe trend that fits: a new take on the classic Mary Jane.

November 10 2009
Karen Wheeler

Is it just me, or are this autumn’s shoes singularly unappealing? Given that the season’s main clothing trend is black – and who doesn’t already have a closet full of that – the obvious strategy is to cheer up one’s wardrobe with some new shoes. But many who have tried to do so will have found themselves spectacularly thwarted as designers continue to promote the “extreme” shoe trend. Lace-up shoe-boots and brogues, dominatrix straps and buckles, and thick orthopaedic-looking soles: this is a trend that feels as though it’s been going on for far too long.

Manolo Blahnik thinks so too. “You know what? I’ve just come back from New York and all those ugly shoes, they are on the sale rails,” he says. “They are not selling. It’s time to go back to normal things because in difficult times people are not going to invest in trash.” It does, indeed, seem the wrong season to try and persuade people to spend hundreds of pounds on a pair of high-heeled, lace-up hiking boots or brogues. “The return to tailoring and more body-conscious clothes requires something very elegant, not the disproportionate volume of these hideous platforms and weird heels, of which I’m so tired,” says Blahnik.

There is, however, an alternative to the extreme shoe, one that has not been promoted on the catwalks or flagged up in magazines, but which has slipped into stores almost unnoticed. It is the Mary Jane: an American term for a (usually) closed-toe shoe with a single-buckle strap across the instep. “I have this style of shoe in my collection every season, in leather, grosgrain or suede, with a button or buckle,” says Blahnik, “but right now it is spot on. It’s been a complete surprise.”

But perhaps it’s not such a surprise to those of us who’ve been searching for a fashionable shoe with aesthetic merit. When I visited one of Prada’s London stores recently I certainly wasn’t expecting to actually buy any shoes, as I’d seen the pictures of this season’s key styles featuring corrugated rubber soles and Mohican-esque protuberances. So I was delighted to find several designs, all modern takes on the Mary Jane, that triggered the visceral urge to buy, including a style in ruby-red leather with chunky heels, round toes and a wide jewelled strap (£350). Equally irresistible is the Grafite style (£350) in ox-blood or grey leather decorated with metal studs – thereby ticking off two trends in one, since metal embellishment is currently very in vogue. These had a slightly lower 8cm heel, but were fun, quirky and elegant: the perfect everyday shoe.

I bought all three pairs on the basis that it is very rare to find a style that is beautiful, useful and, dare I say it, practical (a word considered repugnant as far as shoes are concerned). The only wonder was how they had arrived in the Prada store without any fanfare. I hadn’t seen them in any magazines or publicity campaigns (though tellingly, I had seen a recent photograph of Miuccia Prada herself in a gladiator tunic and a pair of high-heeled Mary Janes). According to the Prada press office, the low profile of the Mary Janes was due to them being part of Prada’s “commercial” collection as opposed to the “directional” line. (Who knew that Prada shoes were divided thus?) “Mrs Prada,” I was told, “is not promoting the Mary Jane as a directional look this season.”

Well, why not? It’s the perfect match for the current return to tailoring, moving the look on from the structured suit and court shoe combo of the 1980s. For, much as there is to love about the classic court, the updated Mary Jane, ideally featuring a chunky heel or platform sole, suddenly seems more interesting and of the moment. There is something youthful and flirtatious about it, particularly when executed in a bright colour and worn with opaque tights.

As I discovered when I got my new purchases home, the Mary Jane goes with almost everything, including the classic pencil skirt (for a vintage-inspired office ensemble), tulip and A-line skirts, and tailored coats, as well as little evening dresses. “The Mary Jane adds femininity to even the most severe power tailoring and smartens up the most diaphanous of maxi dresses,” says Ed Burstell, buying director of Liberty, which is stocking several quirky, vintage-inspired versions by part-Brazilian, part-Japanese designer Chie Mahara, including the Sharon (£220), which comes in a patchwork of green leather.

“A smart Mary Jane is more flattering to the line of your foot [than the current vogue for clumpy shoes]. It’s elegant and sophisticated with the option of being sexy, depending on the style you choose,” says Burstell. A trip to Selfridges’ shoe department, meanwhile, confirms that the Mary Jane is very much this season’s “stealth” shoe trend, with a proliferation of styles tucked beside the ubiquitous lace-up shoe-boots, including Christian Louboutin’s platform peep-toe version in leather or suede (£550), Lanvin’s 1940s-style satin and patent Mary Jane with a low chunky heel (£365) and Viktor & Rolf’s black patent, slim-heeled shoe with bow-style bar (£395).

Sebastian Manes, Selfridges’ director of women’s accessories, confirms that the Mary Jane is back – possibly, he notes, because it is a very strong season for skirts – and that both the Lanvin shoe and Miu Miu’s platform peep-toe version in navy or purple velvet (£295) are selling particularly well. “But the Mary Jane we are talking about is not the classic one. It’s all about the treatment; the leather and the detail,” he says.

This is an important point. The most fashion-forward Mary Janes have an “edge” to them, featuring high chunky heels or platform soles, and often with exaggerated grommets or buckles, as is the case with Prada’s versions, while studs also feature on a pair by Juicy Couture (from £240). The classic shoe – which many designers including Louboutin and Rupert Sanderson have done – can by contrast seem dull, and more than a little frumpy. And while the original Mary Jane often referred to a style in black patent, my personal feeling is that this is just a little too reminiscent of white knee socks and the schoolyard.

For day, chunkier heels work best, as they are not only easier to walk in but they also have a slimming effect on the ankles. For evening, the Mary Jane can really pull a look together, adding a touch of quirkiness or colour to even the most sober business outfit. Two of the most striking styles are Calvin Klein Collection’s Mary Janes in yellow velvet with transparent heels and dramatically wide strap (£320) – which look great with just a simple shift and opaque tights – and the aforementioned velvet Miu Miu platforms.

Other elegant styles for night include Manolo Blahnik’s Matron (£420) in violet, light blue or black satin with high, tapered heels and a dramatic sweep of a wide asymmetric strap; and Pucele (£410), a similar style in green, black or red satin, but with a peep-toe; and Jimmy Choo’s fine-heeled Griffin in glittery black velvet (£415). And while Rupert Sanderson’s several Mary Jane styles include a classic patent, the most modern are the platform-heeled Zircon (£495), with chiselled, pointed toes, and a similar design in red or navy suede called Tullia (£440), which are better for daytime.

Perhaps the real pull of the Mary Jane, however, is that, unlike court shoes or slingbacks, no matter how high the heel, there is little possibility of stepping out of them, as they are strapped to your foot. As Manolo Blahnik says: “People feel more safe, more secure in them.” But a word or two about strap placement, which is crucial: too high and it can take the shoe into the realm of ankle-straps, which bisect the leg in an unflattering way; too low or too thin a strap, on the other hand, can make some feet look fat.

Finally, Miuccia Prada might not have deemed the Mary Jane a directional look for this season, but she has for next year. Recently unveiled on the spring catwalk is a futuristic-looking Mary Jane with a wide see-through strap, pointy toes and a transparent heel. The Marni label, meanwhile, has introduced the Mary Jane sandal. Featuring either a slingback or an open toe, it is not strictly speaking a Mary Jane, but since it boasts the all-important strap across the front, it is in spirit. All good news, then, for anyone who has bought a pair of Mary Janes from this season’s collections, thereby unwittingly stealing a march on next season.

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