Marikina City, the Philippines
November 7, 2011
Her name had given language a new superlative for decadent opulence: imeldific. Former First Lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos had gone down in history for owning a legendary 3,000-strong collection of shoes, discovered in the basement of Malacañang Palace after the Marcoses fled during the 1986 revolution. Now, more than 700 of these shoes were showcased in the modest-sized Marikina Shoe Museum.
A joyride took Mom, Ki, and me to the city next door, known for its footwear industry. Imelda’s shoes immediately came to mind, but we had forgotten it was a Monday, a day off for museums. The female guard understandably denied us entry. As we turned to walk away, she decided to make a quick buck. She collected the P50 entrance fee and let us in. I belatedly realized she had not issued any tickets.
The museum was not Imelda’s virtual walk-in closet. It also featured foreign footwear, shoes worn by former presidents and renowned personalities, and some curios like a giant boot and a shoe-shaped telephone. Lifelike dioramas depicting the tradition of shoe-making in the city filled the mezzanine.
But who were we kidding? We were there to ogle the imeldific collection. The place was seemingly haunted by the specter of Imelda Marcos, although she was still alive and free and had, in fact, made a political comeback from exile decades ago. Huge portraits of the beguilingly beautiful Iron Butterfly, as she was called then, wearing her signature traditional gown with butterfly sleeves presided over racks of shoes. Official black-and-white photos of the former First Lady with heads of state and foreign dignitaries as she was dispensing her unofficial duties to soften the image of her dictator-husband put the ostentatious display into this political context.
Her shoes had become unlikely museum pieces, preserved and encased in glass (as opposed to the pairs that went to another museum where they were left to rot in rain-soaked boxes). Imported names, such as Chanel and Charles Jourdan, and a local brand, Lady Rustans, were well-represented. They came in different designs – classic and flashy, bare and studded, but mostly in gold or red. By the looks of it, Imelda must have partied like a rock chick back in the day.
Although the shoes had become symbolic of unmitigated corruption that was the undoing of the 20-year Marcos dictatorship, Imelda unabashedly embraced them. She even graced the museum inauguration and dropped this famous sound bite: “They went into my closets looking for skeletons, but thank God, all they found were beautiful shoes.” Interestingly, the skeletons of many human rights victims during the Marcos years had not been found to this day.
Social context – that was what this imeldific shrine lacked. The fact that generations of Filipino schoolchildren had walked for miles barefoot was swept under the glittering shoes. Imelda never minced words in expressing her Evita complex: “Never dress down for the poor. They want their First Lady to look like a million dollars.”
With the influx of imported footwear, Ki thought that local shoe-making was a dying tradition. But there were prominent people, Imelda included, who had lent their support to the shoe industry, their names honored by the city on walk-of-fame tiles outside the museum. If Marikina were keen on maintaining its renown as the shoe capital of the Philippines, the spotlight should have been trailed on this city’s traditions, not only as a memory in a museum and a footnote in Imelda’s footwear.
Admittedly, the biggest draw of the museum was Imelda herself. In her heart, she must have felt deserving of such luxury for serving the masses. This reciprocity between public service and self-entitlement had been perpetuated by succeeding regimes. It trickled down from the powers that be to the little people, such as the security guard who let us in on an off day for a fee. Like First Lady, like lady guard.
I took liberties with a line in Evita: “Don’t cry for Imelda. The truth is she never left us.”