Shelved Dolls: Imelda Marcos – No, Seriously, How Many Shoes Did She Have?

And, of course, certainly most memorably, there were her thousands of pairs of shoes, which were housed in a massive closet, and which she left behind when fleeing the country. It’s odd that this became the ultimate symbol of her excesses, and not the time she thought about buying the Empire State Building.

Whenever I hear about the shoes, though, it reminds me of an anecdote in Furious Love about when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – who were famous for spending money as though it was going out of style – went to visit Benin in West Africa.

They were housed at the Presidential compound, and were greeted personally by President Soglo, the general who had helped win the countries independence a decade earlier. Biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger write:

The palace could barely hold a candle, however, to the luxurious hotels the Burtons were used to. When “Mon General” showed them his wife’s clothes closet with great fanfare, Elizabeth was touched to see “a perfectly ordinary rack of shoes.” When Elizabeth was invited to step onto a mat that automatically switched on a couple of lights, she feigned delight. 

I think this is supposed to be a “The Burtons are polite” story, but anecdotes like these do make me think of the tremendous pressure that heads of developing countries (like the Philippines) must feel to keep up with the luxuries of world powers. Perhaps Imelda Marcos simply didn’t want her shoe closet to seem pitiable and ridiculous if Elizabeth Taylor were to step foot in it.

No world leader, I’m sure, wants to be seen as kind of sad and sweet and adorable as a result of their shoe rack.

Moreover, this was the 80′s. It was a time when women on the world stage were supposed to be extremely fashionable. You could even argue that Princess Diana became as a famous – and beloved – as she was simply because she had such great taste in clothes. I mean, major news outlets still chronicle the story of her life in terms of her evolving taste in clothes.

So, yes, clothes do matter in regards to female world leaders. Imelda Marcos was not stupid or naive to think so. And it’s possible that having 40 billion shoes could really help you out (God knows how many Princess Diana had) – providing your people are are not starving.

This is the thing, and pay attention to this, because you seem like the kind of person who might lead a military coup one day: you literally cannot do anything fun if your people are starving, or they will kill you.

This isn’t about being a selfless person, this isn’t de-worming orphans in Somalia, this is just politely declining to meet Madame Guillotine.

Best case scenario there will be a revolution and you will have to flee. I understand that a lot of women in power – from Marie Antoinette to Imelda Marcos – really haven’t wanted to follow this advice. And I get that, because being a world leader seems appealing because it should allow you to have a TON of fun, and buy ALL the shoes.

Also, they probably don’t remember their people are starving if they don’t see them every day. This is evidenced by the fact that we, normal people, often forget that people are starving and go out and get drinks and play angry birds and continue on our merry way.

However. If you are a leader, and your people are starving, the only way you come out okay is if you adopt conditions that give the impression that you are one of them. Think of Washington sleeping in the tents with his men, or Queen Lilibet and Bertie expressing relief that the palace and been bombed during the Blitz so that they would no longer feel ashamed meeting with the people of the East End.

Really, when your people are starving, all you are supposed to do is be that lady in the dumb beginning of the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun video who is preparing the eggs. For people to eat.

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    • Anonachocolatemousse

      I have, let’s not call it an obsession exactly, but a love for shoes. Because of this love and the fact that I had over a hundred pairs by the time I was in high school, my family called me Imelda Marcos. Sweet, but also weird now that I know that her acquisition of shoes came at time when her people were starving.

    • M -

      Hm, just a random note – I don’t know how it was in 1983, but Denmark is ridiculously fashionable.

    • beanie

      You must do Michelle Duvalier! She refrigerated her palace in Haiti so she could wear her furs! I love this series you are doing. I’ve learned many new things about the women you profile.

      • Cait

        WHAT!!!! I am so interested in this.

    • hazen

      Some day we will be reading similar stories about the Obamas. Come to think of it, we are already reading them.

      • jjj

        Except it will be Michelle’s designer dresses instead of shoes….or their multiple lavish vacations….yes the list could go on…..

    • marie

      Perhaps what we consider an avaricious sociopath resonates differently in their culture? Pretty big on forgiveness nevertheless.

    • Margaux

      I love the historical information in this because I am from that country and I just realized how many tidbits of information I’ve missed. Also, again this was another great article from you. Me too, I don’t get why the Marcoses weren’t axed or anything.

    • Erika

      I’m from the Philippines and to this day Imelda is a controversial figure. Her life is super interesting–she’s survived assassination attempts, her son Bongbong is rumored to be dead and replaced by a lookalike relative, and the whole Manila Film Fest scandal is totally one for the books. Look it up, it’s incredible fascinating.

    • Cara

      This is a very delayed reaction – I’m a latecomer to this site, much to my shame – but you need a teeny correction to this paragraph: “The only time the Marcoses excesses ever seem alluded to was when the
      revolutionary leader, and new president, Ninoy Aquino, remarked “ours
      must have been the cheapest revolution ever.” …” The person who said this was Cory Aquino, Ninoy’s widow. Mr. Aquino was assassinated in 1983, before the Marcoses were deposed. The rest of the sentence is correct, though – Mrs. Aquino became one of the revolutionary leaders when her husband died, as well as the new President. :)

    • FemelleChevalier

      I just stumbled upon this, and it was interesting. There are some that bothers me, though.

      The people are in NO way starving. The reign of Marcos is considered by most Filipinos as the golden age of economical growth in the Philippines. Because of Marcos, the country became well-known in ASEAN and worldwide.

      Marcos is a brilliant man with an eidetic memory to match. He is a great politician and he made the country a front-runner in the economical standpoint.

      People won’t want to kill them due to starvation, because they aren’t starved in the first place. The opposition wants to tear him down due to his temper and inability to take suggestions. Paranoia, temper, and the political opposition drove him to declare Marshall Law that lasted TWO decades, and THAT’S the reason why the masses revolt. The last few years of the Marshall Law became a mess of violence and the limited freedom is what drove Filipinos to retaliate.

      Not because of hunger, but because of the Marshall Law.

      Aquino is a politician who openly criticizes Marcos and his dictatorial reign. He was assassinated and until now, no one knows who’s behind it (the obvious answer would be Marcos himself). His death became a catalyst and people (who were wronged) made him a hero. And the opposition pushed his widow to become the next president.

      But the Aquinos didn’t improve the country. They are rich, elitist hypocrites who are still in the middle of a scandal involving their farmers and their promised lands. The only good thing that came out of the revolution is the removal of Marshall Law. That’s it. From there, the economy gradually declined and the political greed became more rampant.

      All in all, Marcos isn’t a monster. He and his wife is excessive, yes. But they never let their people starved. That’s why, to this day, his family is still respected enough to be voted in the politics.

      P.S. Bongbong is a nickname.