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Shoes are a personal matter -- perhaps more so than any other article of clothing.

Think about it. Would Marilyn Monroe have been Marilyn if she posed on subway gratings wearing Aerosoles?

Similarly, who can picture Audrey Hepburn in stilettos rather than her trademark ballet flats and "Sabrina" pumps?

From Mary Janes to mules, slides to stilettos, women's shoes offer enormous variety. But what makes the shoe story fascinating -- yet sometimes frustrating -- to women is the incongruous nature of female footwear.

On the one hand -- er, foot -- there's the development of such shoes as the Easy Spirit Dress Shoe, which are designed to look like a pump, feel like a sneaker.

On the other, there's Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss tettering down New York runways wearing stilettos.

In fact, studies show that 45 percent of American women sometimes wear shoes that hurt in order to look fashionable.

With that in mind, we talked to three local women about shoes -- what they like, what they don't and what they wear on their feet when they step out.

Kristina Donovan, a 27-year-old hairstylist at Salon Salon in Niagara Falls, likes black funky shoes with chunky heels.

"My mother always tells me, 'the uglier the shoes, the more I like them,' " she said.

What she wears: "I'm really into black shoes. I have a pair of white and black snakeskin loafers with a couple-inch chunky heel; I have a pair of black ones with a square toe and white piping on them. I also have a brown pair that are all straps with chunky heels. As long as they have chunky heels on them, I like them."

What she wouldn't wear: "I hate stilettos and skinny heels. I don't like flat shoes, either. They don't go with my wardrobe. They just don't look right."

What do you think when you see models in fashion magazines wearing stilettos?

"I think they look great in the magazines. I just wouldn't be comfortable wearing them; I'm too clumsy."

What kinds of shoes do you like to wear?

"I like shoes with very chunky heels, so I hope they never go out of style. I like them about 2 or 3 inches high, usually with a square toe."

How many pairs of shoes do you own?

"About 50."

What do you wear with your black and white snakeskin loafers?

"I usually wear them with black cigarette pants. People call me Rod Stewart when I wear them."

What sorts of shoes do you wear at work?

"Usually shoes with a 2- or 3-inch chunky heel. They are very comfortable when I'm on my feet all day."

What about Candie's and other slides that are so trendy right now? Do you wear them?

"I have a pair from 9 & Co. that I really like. At work, it's hard to wear shoes with open toes because of all the hair on the salon floor. I'd wear them outside of work, though, with shorts."

Do you feel differently when you're dressed in heels?

"Yes. I think it makes your body look longer and sleeker."

Do you think men prefer to see women in heels?

"I think men always have it in their heads that they like high heels."

How much, on average, do you pay for shoes?

"I'd say from $30 to $60. I usually shop at the malls for shoes; I like some of the shoes at the Wild Pair, although some of the styles are too wild for me. I also shop at the Niagara Factory Outlets."

If the shoe industry came to you for advice, what would you suggest?

"Keep the chunky heels . . . soft leather . . . definitely no stilettos."

Are you a shoe nut?

"Sort of. I read somewhere that it has something to do with being a Pisces."

Toni Graves, a 37-year-old kindergarten teacher at School 90, heads to class during the school year in shoes that match the outfit she's wearing.

Usually it's a sophisticated pump of some sort -- but not necessarily suited to the sorts of activities that go on in a kindergarten class, she said.

By noon -- sometimes even by 10 a.m. -- she has switched into one of the four or five pairs of shoes she stores in a classroom closet -- usually flats with small platforms that "are not too casual, not too dressy."

She likes one style so much, she bought them in three different colors.

Mrs. Graves is passionate about shoes.

"I have shoes all over the house. My husband complains that he's always tripping over them," she said.

"I love shoes, but sometimes I buy them and never wear them. I have a pair of pink pumps I've never worn. I bought them for $9.99 at a clearance sale at T.J. Maxx. I almost wore them to a wedding last weekend, but I decided to wear my peach ones instead."

She estimates that she owns about 80 pairs of shoes. Not including sneakers.

"That's a whole different category," she said.

Describe your favorite pair of shoes.

"My summer favorites are black patent thong sandals with a chunky heel that I bought at the Old Navy Clothing Co. My work favorites are my navy blue DKNY loafers. They are very comfortable, and I can wear them with jeans and jumpers."

Do you wear high heels?

"I don't wear high heels anymore -- those high, spiky things -- because they hurt my back. I know they are supposed to be sexually appealing and my husband would love for me to put them on, but they hurt my feet so I don't wear them.

"I see them in the stores, but I haven't bought high heels in a long time."

Do shoes have to hurt to have style?

"Some of the nicer shoes I have do hurt -- but they look good."

What sorts of shoes do you like to wear with jeans?

"I like chunky leather boots with jeans. On Saturdays, I'll wear them with jeans and a white T-shirt or, in the fall, a turtleneck and blazer. I really like that look."

Do you notice other people's shoes?

"Yes, especially if the heels are run-down. Isn't that a terrible thing to say? I also notice funky shoes."

What's the funkiest pair of shoes you own?

"A pair of black boots with leopard-print insets. They come up to my ankle and lace up."

What style shoes would you never wear?

"Those plastic jellie things. They make your feet sweat."

How much, on average, do you pay for shoes?

"I'll pay $40 for a nice pair of shoes -- and that's usually the marked-down price -- or up to $65 for a really, really nice pair of shoes."

Where do you shop for shoes?

"T.J. Maxx, Syms, Kaufmann's."

If the shoe industry came to you for advice, what would you tell them?

"Make them gorgeous and comfortable. Fashionable and comfortable. Funky and comfortable. Everything and comfortable."
Jean Covelli, 47, didn't concern herself much with shoes until she spent time abroad.

"I never really thought a lot about shoes until I began to travel as frequently as I do and realized the difference in comfort between a good shoe and a less expensive shoe," said Ms. Covelli, who has been president of Travel Team Inc., a local travel agency, for eight years.

"I became more cognizant of it as I started to shop more in Europe. I think, in many cases, the quality of their leather exceeds what I was able to get here.

"I also realized that synthetic shoes become very uncomfortable in a far shorter period of time because of their inability to breathe properly," she said.

Today, she estimates she owns about 60 pairs of shoes -- casual and dressy combined.

"On the dress side, I have eight or 10 that I rotate and replace on a regular basis."

Unlike many women, Ms. Covelli often buys a pair of shoes first; the clothes come later.

"I think the importance of the shoe -- the comfort, the quality -- is more of a battle than finding a properly fitted suit if you are an average size," she said.

Styles she prefers for work: "Very European -- nothing that I can normally find here. The pant shoes vary from the skirt shoes."

Favorite pair: "Black calf leather; the leather is very soft. They are what I would call an updated classic look, with a bit of a different shape in the toe as well as an updated heel. The heel is 2 3/4 inches high. I bought them in France."

Why do you like them so much?

"I think they are multipurpose in terms of wearing them from day into evening, when required. Because of the softness of the European leather, they are very comfortable for long periods of time."

Do you prefer heels for work?

"I only wear heels with my work clothes -- whether it be a pantsuit or a skirted suit. I would never consider an open toe or open heel in the work environment . . . and the thicker heels this year I think are the way to go."

Pet peeves?

"My tendency is to go toward the darker shades of navy, brown and black in a work environment. I would never consider wearing white shoes to work."

High heels have been associated with femininity for a long time. George Bernard Shaw oncewarned women: "If you rebel against high-heeled shoes, take care to do so in a very smart hat." Do you agree?

"To me flats have so often been associated with casual wear, in that when you wear them as a dress item it tends to take away from the overall look if you are in a tailored suit.

"I feel very strongly that heels make a dressier statement for females who are dressed in a business suit or business dress. If I were going to wear flats, I would find it to be more appropriate with a dressy pant suit."

You mentioned that Europeans seem to have a different approach to shoes. How so?

"I think that they have very subtle changes in their fashion. I never seem to find an extreme change, but the subtle change does force you to change your classic look. In terms of quality I find that in a good European shoe -- Italian or French or Spanish -- the leather tends to be much softer and more flexible."

What about shoes outside of work?

"On the casual side, I tend to always wear flats and I do generally buy those stateside. (She wears Easy Spirit shoes and also shops for shoes at Off 5th, the Saks Fifth Avenue outlet at the Niagara Factory Outlets.)

Do you notice other people's shoes?

"I think shoes can make a statement about someone -- particularly if we forget to polish them or replace the heels or have scuff marks on them.

"Within our organization, we have a dress code guideline on condition of shoes. Shoes should be polished and maintained at all times."

How much, on average, do you pay for shoes?

"There's a whole difference for me between the average I pay for a dress shoe vs. a casual shoe. The average I pay for a dress shoe is over $200; the average I pay for a casual shoe is under $100."

Erma Bombeck once joked, "If shoes don't hurt, they don't have style." Do you agree?

"Particularly in a dress shoes. Actually, if you do invest in a better-quality leather dress shoe, it tends to be more comfortable than buying multiple pairs of less expensive shoes."

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