This Haunts Me: Were Those Urban Outfitters Mary Janes Cultural Appropriation?
I'm coming to terms with a pair of shoes that I used to wear loyally, despite irreparable foot pain.
I didn't walk much in high school.
Between 2010 and 2014, the longest distance I had to commute on foot was from the parking lot of my high school campus to the band hall. I spent eight hours a day sitting in classes, stagnant, until the bell signaled it was time to make yet another short trek to my next sitting location. All of this is to say: I didn't often consider the comfort level of my shoes.
Since I grew up in a warm climate, my regular shoe rotation usually consisted of flimsy sandals, unsupportive Converse, or Steve Madden ballet flats that I'd convinced myself were the height of luxury for a middle-class white girl like myself. But, on occasion, I'd disrupt the usual cycle of footwear by donning the most heinous addition to my shoe collection: black Mary Janes made of thin cotton fabric, with razor-thin soles, sold exclusively by Urban Outfitters.
Allicyn B. on Lookbook.nu
If my memory serves me right, these podiatrist's nightmares sold for $12 a pair; two pairs would cost you $20, a considerable steal in Urban Outfitters' world of capitalized hipsterdom. You could buy them in a simple, single-strap style, or a T-strap version. They came in an assortment of seasonally-appropriate colors and patterns, with velvet pairs being ushered in each winter.
And, since I didn't have to walk much and I didn't always have enough money to shell out for proper footwear, the Urban Outfitters cotton Mary Janes were my ticket to looking like a Tumblr girl who listened to an embarrassing amount of landfill indie.
Haley Titus on Lookbook.nu
I cannot repeat enough times that these shoes did not feel good to wear, whatsoever. Even in my relatively short daily walks to and from the school's parking lot, my bony heels might as well have been making direct contact with the asphalt. Putting insoles inside the Mary Janes provided marginal relief, but there was little that could be done in terms of the shoes' nonexistent shock absorption. And on top of the discomfort, I lived in constant fear of the fragile buckle on the strap breaking loose, swiftly rendering the shoes unusable.
Almost a decade later, I'm coming up on my third year in New York City, and comfortable shoes have never been more important to me. My winter shoes are Dr. Martens with insoles; my summer shoes are platform Tevas that simulate walking on clouds. I appreciate a good fashion sneaker and I recently scored a pair of gently-used Dansko clogs — you know, the ones literal nurses wear — at a thrift store.
While looking through high school photos recently, I was astonished at how much foot pain I could tolerate in those dumb Mary Janes.
Stephanie Pascua on Lookbook.nu
But a new revelation I had about these shoes was that they carry a whiff of cultural appropriation. When I first pitched this story idea to my editor, who just happens to be Asian-American, I suddenly realized they looked eerily similar to traditional Chinese slippers. She responded: "THANK GOD you said it, not me." I even vaguely remember the Urban Outfitters shoes having a vaguely Chinese logo.
Maybe it's a long shot to say a pair of shoes are culturally appropriative. But this is Urban Outfitters we're talking about, after all, who have had a dark history of cultural appropriation: in 2016, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters for using their name (which is trademarked) and likeness in everything from feathered jewelry to printed underwear. The lawsuit is only one instance of Urban co-opting non-white cultures.
So, this is me officially coming out as someone who once wore those stupid, uncomfortable, colonized, cotton Urban Outfitters Mary Janes. If, for some reason, you're still inclined to purchase them, they're still available in corduroy on Urban's website. You can also find various secondhand pairs on thrifting apps like Depop and Poshmark — but consider this a warning. My memories, and my poor soles, are forever haunted.