At first, I wasn't quite sure why I kept staring at women's legs in Bratislava when the weather here started to get warm. Perhaps, I thought, I was somehow mesmerised by how thin some of them were, thin as ballet dancer's legs up to the edges of their impossibly short skirts. Or maybe I was shocked by how young women would strap their feet into heels so high and uncomfortable even when just going to class or out for a coffee with a friend. I found myself particularly disturbed by the sight of the fully done-up Slovak young woman (short skirt, high sandals, see-thru polyester shirt or crop top) towering proudly on the arm of a shorts-and- sneaker-clad boyfriend who obviously couldn't care less about what he looked like.
As I wondered why my ankles weren't thinner, I struggled to recall how in my liberal sphere back home, to look that sexy all the time is almost considered a sell-out, an admission that you need your body to get to where you want to go. These women, I thought angrily, were spending too much time trying to look good for men, no matter how much they thought they were doing it for themselves. My impressions seemed confirmed by the fact that the tall-heel wearers seldom seemed happy and care-free: they were too busy trying to balance.
Yes, I reflected on this subject a lot, but it was the legs, the legs I kept coming back to. Finally it began to dawn on me why. In the cheap orange-coloured "nude stockings", in the black stockings worn with white open-toed or open-backed shoes, I had spotted a fascinating weakness, a fashion error so grave back home that at first I didn't even realize I was looking right at it. To wear stockings with open strappy summer sandals in New York is so uncool, so unacceptable, so out of range that I had literally never even considered the possibility. Sure, my feet were cold in their sandals when the weather first began to change, but I would never remedy the problem with stockings! Never!
Though these women otherwise were apparently trying hard to look like runway models, somehow this unspoken fact about Western fashion had literally fallen below the radar. Perhaps because fashion magazines sometimes don't show feet, even the prettiest, most fashion-conscious Slovaks often seemed unaware. And try as I might, I just could not put this phenomenon down to mere cultural difference. It was a lag in development, a lack of understanding, something that showed to me as clearly as any political report that Slovakia is still quite far from the West.
You see, I had seen this stockings-with-sandals phenomenon once before: in China. Equally as shocking at first, the women there didn't even seem to mind wearing calf-high stockings with summer skirts and sandals. It was ugly to be sure: but then again, these women were as far as I could possibly tell not thinking about looking attractive. They were working, riding bicycles laden with goods, selling vegetables in the market, commuting from place to place. The stockings were somewhat practical there, given the cheap shoes (much like the ones here) and dirty streets (a lot like here), and significant cultural stress on making sure feet and legs don't get a chill (a lot like here). And it struck me yet again how amazing the continuum of world culture is: how legs revealed that Slovakia is somehow not only geographically between China and the west.
Delving into the subject further, I learned that women in Slovakia have been wearing stockings with their sandals for years: all the way through Communism and before. When its chilly in the morning, stockings seem a wise solution. One friend had a Slovak girlfriend who told him that to wear sandals without stockings was somehow "not polite."
Sure, I might be latching on to this "stockings problem" as a way of making myself feel better about the fact that I am often standing next to a veritable Slovak super-model on the bus, my own legs feeling squatter than ever. It may just be a way of reminding myself that these women are not my competitors, but creatures of a completely different cultural world. But maybe, just maybe, those of them who go and live in the west will one day marvel that they once wore stockings with their sandals: those of them, that is, who don't block out the memory completely.
14. Jun 1999 at 0:00 | Sharon Otterman