Never Underestimate the Healing Power of a Cowboy Boot

Exactly one month before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and the world began to shut down, I flew maskless from Los Angeles, where I now live, to New York, where I lived for nearly a decade, to commemorate the life of a dear friend who died of cancer in January.

Seven of us gathered (quite close, I now cannot help but see) around an intimate dining table, in a large and busy restaurant in Manhattan, to share stories and food and mutual grief. If the topic of the coronavirus came up, I don’t remember what was said. There weren’t yet even thirteen known cases in the United States. We were more awed, that night, by the closing of Barneys. The end of an era, we agreed. The death knell of civilization, we called it. A blow to New York in particular and a certain segment of society in general.

Over mixed berry panna cotta, my new friend (and sometimes editor) Garance Franke-Ruta told me she’d been recently to the department store’s Chelsea location, where what was still left was 90% off of its original ticket price, and even display cases could be bought. For $75, she’d picked up a pair of wine-purple suede ankle-high Isabel Marant cowboy boots, which reminded her of our friend Lizzie, who loved purple and cowboy boots and Barneys and matching with her friends. Another new friend, Amy Argetsinger, told me she and Lizzie had texted about Barneys’ demise. It was the big news before all the other much bigger news.

The author with her friend, Lizzie.

Molly Oswaks

Sentimental bargain hunter that I am, I figured I needed a pair, too. They would be a tribute to Barneys and to my friend, something by which to honor them both. I bought the boots and flew back home, wearing them off the plane and into an Uber. They would be, I did not then realize, my last personal splurge before lockdown altered spending habits nationally and freelance budgets inevitably.

February passed without much incident, which is to say, I went out a lot in my new boots: a reiki session, a museum visit, some party reporting, a dinner party with my cookbook club. Then it was March 11 and everything was suddenly terrifying. And it really did feel sudden. People were wearing polymer gloves in the produce aisle and gas masks in the street. No one could find hand sanitizer and many had begun to bulk buy toilet paper as if they foresaw a gastrointestinal side effect to working from home.

With a bottle of isopropyl alcohol (which I’d bought months earlier for sterilizing my at-home microneedle facial tools) and a smaller bottle of mint-green medicated aloe for sunburn, I drove to my Grandma Winnie’s condo in West Hollywood. Winnie is a three-time cancer survivor with COPD and strong self-will. I worried she’d be the last to relent to staying at home, and the most vulnerable to the disease. Winnie also has fantastic fashion sense and, seeing my Barneys boots, she gave me three more pairs of her own from the Seventies and Eighties: lavender suede with metal accent hardware, buttery white leather with snake trim, and river-green lizard skin.

Winnie was the last person I touched, as it turns out, and my final grocery stock-up at the HMart near my apartment, on the way home from hers, my last excursion for that first miserable, confusing month.

Stuck at home, favored personal style choices have been eschewed and replaced with new, more indoor-friendly fashions. Now we have day pajamas and night pajamas. We Winnie-the-Pooh in work-friendly blouses on Zoom, wearing nothing but undies off camera. Sweatpants have replaced jeans, which are now universally known as hard pants, and many have stopped wearing shoes altogether. Why bother? We pine for the pre-date getting ready routine, the multiple outfits tried on and tossed aside. The going-out top has been replaced with the sheltering-in-place pajama.

But all is not lost. There is still room for fun. In the spirit of Little Edie Beale, another iconic American shut-in, I have discovered the best costume for the day: my cowboy boots.

cowboy boots

The author’s growing cowboy boot collection.

Molly Oswaks

If like me you’ve kept your hair in a Ma Ingalls braid for most of lockdown, letting it grow long and unruly until salons are safe again, you might as well match your footwear to the prairie aesthetic. Cowboy boots date back to the real cowboys of the 19th century, perhaps even earlier, and are iconic as the costume of early Hollywood’s blockbuster Westerns movies and New York nightlife alike –– Grace Jones wore them to dance the nights away at Studio 54, and it simply doesn’t get cooler than that.

Crocs and similar water shoes, another newly popular choice, are the ironic ugly-fashion of homebodies making peace with isolation. The fashion-forward choice of the pandemic –– I’m calling it! –– cowboy boots, sturdy and grounding, are appropriate for all our out-of-doors excursions, including protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has brought focus back to Black cowboys everywhere from Compton, California, to Atlanta, Georgia.

Men’s and women’s boot styles don’t differ much, and might be ignored all together, making them thoroughly modern, not exclusively masculine nor feminine fashion. Picture Fran Leibowitz in her blazer and Levis, Marilyn Monroe dressed up as cupid with a bow and arrow, and Burt Reynolds in his boxer shorts in Striptease. Picture Lil Nas X in head-to-toe Barbie pink at the Grammys.

62nd annual grammy awards – press room

Lil Nas X at the Grammys

Alberto E. RodriguezGetty Images

The iconic armor of movie heroes and heroines alike, I tend to feel just a little tougher and sexier in a pair of cowboy boots. Susan Sarandon wore a white pair in Thelma & Louise, and there is truly no one tougher nor sexier than that vengeful, convertible-driving diner waitress with a heart of fool’s gold.

I wear my cowboy boots any time I have reason to leave the house, and LA has been feeling safer lately, even as the rate of infection continues to climb and we enter our second lockdown, with more hospitalizations than ever before. Or perhaps I’m just getting comfortable in our new reality. I slip on a pair of cowboy boots to take out the trash, to run to Trader Joe’s where inevitably someone behind me in the wraparound line hollers admiration of my boots through their mask. I’ve even worn them on a date.

On February 8th, when I bought the Isabel Marant boots, the shoe section of Barney’s Chelsea was apocalyptic. It was like a bar at 4am when all of the lights are turned off, the staff is exhausted and eager to leave, the last few stragglers are unwilling to head home, the floors are sticky, the walls are dirty, the music is bad, everyone’s talking too loud, there’s toilet tissue tracked on the floor, someone left their parka, someone else forgot their purse, and no one and nothing looks as good as it did when they got there. The boots were just boots then, a good deal, a souvenir of a trip and a store and a friendship. I could not have predicted how much they would come to mean to me, nor how far-away and improbable that kind of shopping would soon feel.

The boots were just boots then, a good deal, a souvenir of a trip and a store and a friendship. I could not have predicted how much they would come to mean to me.

I think of Lizzie all the time, and especially whenever I slip my feet into a pair of cowboy boots, because I can recall with a pulsing clarity how much she adored all of her own. How very much they were part of her eccentric, maximalist style. I also cannot help but wonder, near daily, what she would think of this moment we are in. I can’t believe she isn’t here to write shocking and salient essays about all of it –– the pandemic, the election, the Black Lives Matter movement, the grinding halt of Hollywood and the magazines that shuttered in March, The (Dixie) Chicks’ new music and name, the fact that Weinstein is in jail and it’s not the biggest news ever, the impeachment that wasn’t, the politicization of face masks, the fashion brands producing face masks, the end of offices, the rise of Zoom-everything, Cuomo’s slideshows, Fauci’s photoshoots, the hospital tents in Central Park, the hospital beds in the Javits Center, the hospital workers in trash bag scrubs, the hobbling of the USPS, and all of the protests all over the world –– hers is the only voice I really wish I could read right now. Instead she keeps coming up in my own writing, even when it’s about fashion, even when it’s about food. Like that W.S. Merwin poem, everything I do is stitched with her color. And everything I wear.

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