One by one, the ailments of developed societies are infecting Korea: the ennui, the low birthrate, the obsession with trivia that results from a stable political system and a respectable per-capita income. "I get more excited when I see a pretty pair of shoes than when I watch a performance or visit an art exhibit. Shoes are the highest form of art," says one typical victim of what has been called the End of History. "When I get in a pair of shoes, my chest and back straighten and I feel confident."
"Shoeaholics" are women whose love for shoes outstrips anything else in their lives. Their obsession is encouraged rather than laughed out of existence in iconic cultural products for the terminally shallow like "Sex and the City" and the "Chick Lit" infesting bookstores in the West. Yet it is an archetypal Third-World gargoyle, the Philippines' one-time first lady Imelda Marcos, who with her rumored 3,000 pairs of shoes is the most famous victim of the disease. After her husband's fall from power, she staggered away from prosecution for valuing the comfort of her feet over the welfare of the people.
Last year, the syndrome reached epidemic proportions in Korea. Fashion columnist Oh Jae-hyeong said, "The shoeaholic craze in Korea was hugely influenced by the heroine of the U.S. sitcom 'Sex and the City,' which started running on local cable television from 2001." Carrie Bradshaw (her only weaknesses are shoes and Mr. Big), herself a columnist in the series based on the real-life columns of Candace Bushnell, will drool over Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik shoes costing a cool US$400-500 a pair. A typical shoeaholic will buy a pair of shoes each time she feels down, regardless of whether she can pay the rent. Something about the "post-feminist" character struck a chord with women viewers in Korea too, and by extension fueled local shoeaholism.
Shoeaholics love high heels, open toes, dainty little straps, even in winter, even in rocky terrain: in fact, the more impractical the better. Hand-made shoe shops and outlets of the world's leading luxury cobblers are mushrooming around Korea, where bold enamel shoes, ballet slippers and gem-studded sandals all find willing buyers. The shoeaholics’ dream shoemakers Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik made their Korean debut in November and March.
Shoeaholics feel good just looking at shoes. Wearing high heels literally elevates them above the crowd. Being asked by a passerby where they bought their shoes is the highest gratification they can imagine. Shin Yeong-seop, a film critic and clinical psychologist, says the act of wearing shoes implies the ability to change one's fate, like Cinderella. Shoes can work as an ersatz gratification for sexual urges as well as mere vanity, he said.
They are, after all, a symbol as well as an object of desire. Karen in Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Red Shoes" is excessively attached to her pair of red shoes. But the shoes won't stop dancing, and in they end Karen's feet are cut off. Some say the mere act of taking off one's shoes symbolizes the sexual act: in some Western traditions, a newly wed bride throws off her shoes at the end of the wedding or ties the shoes to the car as it leaves for the honeymoon.
Shoeaholics will diet just to slim down their feet, and moonlight so they can afford more shoes. It may be a waste of money, but a shoeaholic will tell you it's no different to a man collecting models and lighters. How can you resist something so pretty?