Das Boots: Women Beg for Torture, Wrapping Calves in Tight Leather

Boots are back. You aren’t going to be able to escape them this fall. Everywhere you look, some woman is stalking around in a little nothing of a skirt and tall, snug boots. Sexy, right? Not so fast.

Andrea Brake felt anything but sexy sitting on a bench in the trend-conscious shoe store Otto Tootsi Plohound on lower Fifth Avenue early in September, ready to plunk down $300 for the right pair of boots.

“I found some tall boots with a medium-sized heel,” said the lithe, 5-foot-8 graphic designer and yoga enthusiast. “I got it about midway up my calf. The zipper would not go any farther. I tried sort of, like, shoving my skin, pushing it in. I was smooshing the flesh, to no avail.” As indifferent salespeople rushed around trying to serve a crush of boot-mad New Yorkers, recounted Ms. Brake, “I developed a blister on my index finger from trying so hard to pull the zipper.”

Life ain’t so boot-iful either for Vanessa Mobley, a 30-year-old editor at Basic Books, who recalls looking on, aghast, as a friend tried on boots at the Calvin Klein store in Soho. “She is by no means heavy,” said Ms. Mobley, “but they were zip-up boots and they had been built to some arbitrary circumference. Her calf was too big, and the people at the store tried to convince her that there was this whole method of squeezing her flesh into the boot, which was just like you squeeze, squeeze.… It’s like your leg is a sausage and you have to squeeze it into the casing , and she did this, but they barely fit. And she bought them anyway! I was deterred, repulsed. I was like, ‘I’m not casing my leg–no way.’”

The last time knee-high boots were this popular, in the mod 1960′s and hippy-dippy 1970′s, women had soft, ethereal, pliant calves. A couple of aerobic decades, however, have carved a new, firm, decisive calf which stubbornly defies the lean, mean cuts of the mostly Italian designers who are capitalizing on the Charlie’s Angels – Almost Famous revival. Which has left scores of women chagrined about not being able to zip up this season’s boots and asking themselves, What, a new body part I have to feel insecure about ?

“It’s sort of a point of view,” said Miranda Morrison, one-half of the Nolita shoe-design team Sigerson Morrison, whose boots are notorious for their cruelly slim cuts (this season, you will pay from $350 to $600 for a calf measurement of about 33 centimeters). “We made a decision when we started the company to cater to the shapeliest legs, just because that’s how the product looks the best. I mean, you know there are companies who try and fit everybody, and the result is that, for a lot of stylish girls, their boots fit like Wellingtons !”

‘Break Out the Pliers’

At the 1195 Third Avenue branch of Nine West, the ubiquitous shoe chain, boots have been flying out of the store to the tune of 250 pairs per week, claimed assistant manager Zipporah Gales. But she said she doesn’t always have an easy time marrying boot to customer.

“The calf has me a little confused,” Ms. Gales said. “I’ll make assumptions and pull out a particular boot for that person, thinking that their calf will fit it, but a lot of women are working out now, and some of the smallest women have really large calves and can’t even begin to get into it. And then you’ll see the biggest women, but it fits their calf just fine! One customer, I saw it coming when they were pulling it up, I was like, ‘No, I don’t think that’s the boot for you.’ I was going to suggest another one, but she was like, ‘No, I gotta have this boot.’ She zipped it up and she could not get it back down, whatsoever.

“I had to break out the pliers,” Ms. Gales concluded.

“Yes, there are people who get stuck,” said a harried saleswoman at Tootsi Plohound. “But it’s a really common thing, it happens all the time, you just try to zip up and unclog the leather that’s clogging the zipper. Sometimes you cut the leather.” (Customers are not charged for the extraction.)

A few blocks west at Jeffrey, the meat-packing-district Barneys doppelganger which is famed for its shoe department, David Rosen was foisting narrow-cut Guccis and Pradas on anyone who could squeeze in. “A lot of women are having trouble,” he said. “You do something like a graphite pencil, rub it on to help the zipper go easier.” If that doesn’t work, Mr. Rosen gently steers his fat-calved customers to Helmut Lang and Marc Jacobs, which he said are cutting boots wider this season, or the lace-up version from Christian Dior. “Or there are the stretch suedes–you just pull ‘em up!”

But if you want the sleek, zip-up boots that render men weak?

“People that rollerblade and run–it’s not just fat legs, you know?” sighed Mr. Rosen. “If you work out, you’re going to have problems . I know a lot of women who rollerblade, and they just can’t do it. They have to wear ankle boots.”

On Thompson Street at Sacco, a store known for its convincing Prada knock-offs, assistant manager Ed Pizano bragged of a special machine that helps ease women into the boots of their choice.

“It’s just a leg machine,” he said. “You put the boot in, and then you turn the knob and it stretches the leather. As long as you can zip it up more than halfway up the boot, it can be stretched. If it’s by the anklebone and you can’t zip up, you can’t stretch that– but at least 95 percent of the time, they can be stretched.”

But sometimes no amount of fiddling, stretching and squashing will work. Enter the “compromise” boot (a concept with which New York women are quite familiar, from boyfriends to apartments). You settle for a model that is just O.K., that has some good features–you try to like it, to learn to live with it, all the while keeping an eye peeled in case something better comes along.

“I saw the debut of the tall boot and thought that they were fabulous ,” said Jennifer Barnett, 28, a size-8 (body) and size-7 (shoe) production manager at Elle magazine, whose thrice-weekly Stairmastering has produced stubborn little calves. “I tried on so many. The first time I tried them on, I tried every pair in the store and I was like, ‘I can’t believe these don’t fit.’ I would get them a quarter of the way up and there was no hope for me. I tried wearing super-contorting, super-controlling pantyhose and that totally didn’t work. I kept searching and searching and searching . I went to Bloomingdale’s, I went to Saks. I went to Kenneth Cole. I went everywhere–I was on a huge mission. At Tano there was another woman having the problem, and the guy was going to stretch the boot for her, and I was like, ‘Well, can you stretch it for me?’ And he was like, ‘Well, you’d have to stretch it too far–I couldn’t be responsible for the quality of the boot.’ It became quite humiliating for me.”

Finally, she compromised on a pair from a store called Tani on the West Side. “They were only 60 bucks. They are not even very nice quality. I got them in brown, not black, because they didn’t have a style in black that I liked.” And her mortification is driven home each day: As models saunter through the hallways of Elle clad in a rainbow of tall boots, Ms. Barnett can only gnash her teeth. “They have them in every color,” she said. “It’s so depressing. And I know that I can only have my brown pair.”

Sara Nichols, 23, who works for the New Labor Forum, had her personal boot breakdown at Loehmann’s. “They were black, zipper on the side, really nice–I would’ve bought them. They were probably in the $150 range. It’s just embarrassing. Once you realize what’s going to happen, you stop zipping. I’m not a fat person, but I have big calves! They’re muscular. I mean, I run probably three times a week. I’m not a gym bunny .”

Ms. Nichols rejected the stretch-suede boot as “too 80′s retro” and eventually settled on a compromise boot–”teenybopperish, thick, clunky”–from Skechers, the Generation Y footwear chain. “I look at other people’s legs when they’re wearing the big boots and I get pissed !” she said. “It’s an enraging situation.”

“You can put your leg into a smaller boot,” said Ms. Morrison, the shoe designer. “One trick is just to point your toe–that will clench your calf muscle, and make your leg probably as slim as it ever is, and just … perseverance. Pack yourself in. Another trick is to push the boot leg down as you’re zipping it, so that you’re always zipping it at a slim part of your leg, below your calf–and then, once it’s totally zipped up, you start slipping it up the leg, and as long as the boot shaft is a leather, it will give.” She paused. “You may spend a couple of days wondering where your toes are.”