It was just before fashion week when, like many other fashion journalists, I found myself scouring Bergdorf Goodman’s legacied shoe sale for the perfect heel to wear from show to show. I scooped up a massively reduced two-tone Prada pump, a capped-toe YSL, and an assortment of Manolo Blahniks. I grabbed my size and attempted to slip them on. But nothing seemed to fit. On every shoe, my toes hung over the top. Had my feet grown over night? I tried going up a size, down a size, and even threw on stockings. But then it hit me: toe cleavage is back.
My inner (Jewish) church mouse went into a horrified tizzy. “Heels were very sculptural for a long time, to the neglect of toes,” explained Elizabeth Semmelhack, a senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum. Now, toes are “virgin territory.” The message was loud and clear: I had to keep my head up and flaunt my toes.
In an overwhelming sense, shoes for this spring and next fall are all about showcasing toes with a series of stylistic tricks. Shoes are low cut, embellished, and exaggerated. Even Vibram toe shoes are more popular now than ever before.
The emphasis on toes is simultaneously orthopedic and cutting-edge. It’s a shift that began to appear in 2009, from design pioneers like Maison Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons, whose brogues that fall featured a trompe l’oeil illustration of bare feet.
Now, toes are the main event, and in an effort to sex them up, designers are baring podiatric cleavage for the world to see. “Women seem to love that it’s sexy with a soupcon of décolleté at the toes,” Manolo Blahnik told The Daily Beast of his popular toe-cleavage-revealing “BB” design. “It reminds me of those great pumps movie stars wore in the 1950s films—Loren, Day, Lollobrigida.” Budding New York-based ingénue Wes Gordon, who collaborates with Blahnik each season, ordered up a slew of custom-made BBs to accompany his collections. Gordon says that the pump “exudes that fine line between staying elegant and still being a little sexy—just as long as you’re wearing the right size and your feet aren’t completely repulsive.”
Toe cleavage may seem chaste relative to real cleavage, but according to Semmelhack, some women are scandalized by it. She explains that the style’s provocation has caused concern in an (undoubtedly chaste) circle of lawyers in Memphis who considered toe-cleavage baring pumps to be ‘cocktail attire,’ and therefore inappropriate to wear to court. “Recently a bar committee got together to discuss the allowance of toe cleavage at court proceedings—it’s sort of odd considering that we have so many sandals,” she says. “In some ways [toe cleavage] is an artificial seductive glance, an artificial demureness.”
But no other shoe has done so much for the Toe Agenda than Vibram‘s Five-Finger running shoes—a sneaker that encapsulates each toe and conforms to the foot’s natural shape, encouraging the feet to perform as if they were barefoot. The shoes may be eliciting daily giggles in gyms nation-wide, but they’ve been picking up consistent steam in the specialty retail market—enabling hippie-types (including my lurking, across-the-hall neighbor) to get the barefoot experience in urban environments. Even the young Descendents actress Shailene Woodley wore a pair underneath her gown to a Golden Globes after party last year. “There is probably a segment in the market of people who are comfortable with their toes, explained Peter Von Conta, Vibram’s vice president of product design, “I think there is a general consensus out there is that toes are ugly, but to be able to make toes beautiful with the way shoes are designed—to frame the toes and make them sort of regular looking, is what we aim to do.”
So now that toes have made appearances in Parisian couture houses and urban naturalists’ gym lockers alike, they’ve entered the fashion conversation—popping up framed and decorated in designer collections across the board. And though there’s a definitive “toe moment” in fashion – it’s ironic that none of it is about the toe nail itself. Here’s a trend that allows you to flaunt your toes, without having to worry about a pedicure.
Though when the cleavage is covered-up, embellishments and elongation come out in full-force. Christian Louboutin, well known for cutting a low throat (yes, that’s a shoe term) on his famously red-soled heels, concealed the cleavage in favor of placing protruding spikes at the toes of his spring 2012 ‘Asteroid’ heel. They’re a worthy investment if you prefer shoes that work double-time as a pepper-spray alternative. Alber Elbaz included far-reaching pointy toes in his Fall 2012 collection for Lanvin, and for Charlotte Olympia designer, Charlotte Dellal, the tip of the feet seemed like an appropriate place to plant a cat’s face. As for trend’s most wearable moments, Chanel’s age-old trick for podiatric segmentation has found popularity again—contrast colored toes made well-noted appearances at Giambattista Valli and Derek Lam; And the shoes at Christopher Kane were outfitted in strapping leather, resembling a traditional teffilin—the closest thing my religion has to any practice found in 50 Shades of Grey.