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Tripping the light fantastic at Neiman Marcus shoe department

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During the doldrums, say twice a year, I take a little Beverly Hills excursion into that luxe emporium, Neiman Marcus, or, as some have called it, Needless Markup.

Not to buy, but to be awed. Because, after all, everyone needs some enlightenment, some sense of what else is out there besides the saddening news that one in every six Americans lives in poverty, while CEO's take home 100's of millions, telling us that the wealth gap has never been greater...

perlmutter4.jpgEspecially now, that stroll among pricey items can be an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. $1500 for a pair of designer shoes? At last year's visit I tried on a $700 Christian Louboutin number -- you know him, the guy whose trademark is the red shiny leather sole (seen as Sandra Bullock climbed a small ladder from boat to dock in a scene in "The Proposal").

So what would I find now on this island of insanity?

More bedazzlement. As much by the inventory as the tags. Even with advance notice -- gained by eyeing the designer ads in glossy fashion pages -- these marvels of sculptural shape and engineering acuity (available in lots of high-end stores) were wondrous to behold. As preparation, I oggled Lady Gaga in her be-sequinned, hoof-like platforms by Alexander McQueen.

The display seemed endless - easily 70 different styles. Every famous and emerging designer seems to have indulged in this new sport of erecting skyscraper shoes: stiletto heels of 1/8 inch diameter rising 6" with 3" platforms. And, yes, I dared to try one on. That I couldn't even stand in place, let alone take a step, should not come as a surprise.

perlmutter-shoe-3.jpgAnd then, from a short distance, another specimen drew me close. It was a multi-colored patent leather - the front panels were chartreuse, shocking pink and black; the heel cup was outfitted with actual spikes (the better to defend against a mugger? a rude date? or just to identify the wearer's dominatrix status? or just to pretend same? or just an expensive joke?).

I stopped a department sales person on his way to the stock room and asked about this particular Ruthie Davis shoe. "Oh, that one," he volunteered, in a surprisingly unappreciative tone. "Can you believe it? We're actually sold out." Phew, I sighed, relieved that there would be no further dissemination of frightening shoe-wear. Even at the bargain price of $1300.

Surely something is amiss. And not just an economy blown to smithereens, with a hole in the middle class and a top 1% owning multiple jets while unloading their lucre on every exorbitant item in sight. But a whole culture that is reflecting extreme taste. Why not? We're having extreme weather, extreme market volatility, extreme sacrifices, austerity for all (but the rich.)

Five years ago it was streetwalkers who wore these high-off-the-ground clodhoppers, and sausaged themselves into spandex skirts that rose to short-shorts level. Now we've got gorgeous young concert pianists wearing the same. So-called high society has lowered itself to pulp fictions.

perlmutter-shoes1.jpgSurely there's a message here. Sexual power for women, maybe? It used to be the man-tailored suit, that "dress for success" meme, the big padded-shoulders look. Now it's rise high on stilettos, tower over your men, knock them out with nudity, you know, legs, legs and more legs, breast implants and deep decolletage. We can concede, I suppose, this is the new feminine power statement.

But back to the wealthy elite and its exclusive price tags. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said "Let me tell you about the very rich - they're different from you and me."

Yes, I think we can see that. Nothing is new. If you sit down in the NM shoe department to watch and listen, you'll see women walking to and fro, not talking of Michelangelo, but adrift in their insular worlds of couture fashion, enclosed in their bubble of gadabout galas, living far above the fray and in an outré universe.

Still, I don't think foot-fetish fancying was ever this much fun before.


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