A VW van for your feet

You had to have been there. For less than 40 bucks — maybe 30, who remembers? — a weird and compelling pair of sandals, nothing more than natural leather straps crisscrossed on top of a fat suede platform, with a name straight out of an orthopedic shoe catalog: Kork-Ease. They took a certain segment of the female population by storm in the 1970s, and now they're back, the price adjusted for inflation, you bet.

They were renegade shoes in their day, an alternative to the polarizing choices that defined a cultural shift. Our mothers' spike heels were tyrants, with their hobbling fit and the promise of bunions down the line; on the other hand, who wanted to be politically correct enough to wear Earth Shoes? The challenge was to be a new kind of woman, a slave neither to fashion nor to common sense, and Kork-Ease were the answer. The three-inch platform provided height without pain. The unadorned straps went along with the rest of the look, as we waved goodbye not only to Mom's pumps but to make-up, helmet hair, foundation garments, the whole armored look.

We were on our way to someplace fresh in those shoes. They carried the wearer into the counterculture with as much magic as the red-sequined pumps that got Dorothy where she wanted to go. They didn't take guff from anyone.

Then they disappeared as quickly as they had arrived, relegated to the ephemera junkyard along with Navy surplus button-front bell-bottoms and Guatemalan huipils.

Decades later, their aging devotees have gotten all too used to fending off guff: from pharmaceutical companies that see us as targets of opportunity for everything from bone-building drugs to sleep and anti-aging aids; from a culture that sees women over 40 — OK, in Los Angeles, over 30 — as a predictable subspecies called ma'am; from a society that would just as soon we went very quietly into that good night.

Under the circumstances, the second coming of Kork-Ease threatens to become a dull exercise in nostalgia, in which women buy shoes they used to like and proceed to bore their descendants silly with stories of how much fun life used to be.

Worse, we run the risk of ridicule from the next generation of customers, who seem to have twisted Bob Dylan's wish — "May you stay forever young" — into a mandate to dismiss anyone who isn't. The party line on older women doesn't leave a whole lot of room to be considered stylish, let alone interesting.

No one respects the patina of age. The manufacturer of the new Kork-Ease had the temerity to pre-stain the leather straps, rather than allow customers to track the passage of time while the sun does the trick for them. Dark straps used to prove that the wearer was what fashion marketers now call an "early adopter," someone who is way ahead of the curve. Customers raised on MTV — the target Kork-Ease market this time around — have no patience for the slower rhythms of the solar system.

They'll probably want the sandals in the new colors that are available too. The blank-slate look doesn't hold the appeal it once did, now that there's less call for a new agenda.

They can buy the shoes, but they can't wear them the way we do. For them, a pair of Kork-Ease is just a funky pair of shoes; for us, they're the footwear equivalent of a VW bus, mementos of a paradigm shift, a nice little reminder that chronology is not necessarily destiny.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a hot dog joint that had Stevie Wonder's "Reggae Woman" on the sound system, and I distinguished myself from the other customers by dancing in public, just a bit, very discreetly. As far as I am concerned, it's the adults who manage to hold still to that music who ought to be embarrassed, but that's their story, not mine. It's not the story of my peers, who have flocked to stores and websites to pick up another pair of Kork-Ease.

We danced the first time around; we dance again. Stop writing us off, stop taking us too seriously, and for heaven's sake, get out of the way if all you're going to do is stand there.


© Los Angeles Times 2006