In her shoes: former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos's life of excess is uncovered in Marikina

We visit the footwear capital of the Philippines to get insight into the life of excess and exuberance enjoyed by the country’s former first lady

Imelda Marcos, the wife of President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, in Nayong Pilipino Park, Manila, February 1972. (Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images)
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About halfway there, I start to regret my decision. The trip is only 15 kilo­metres long, yet I've already been in a hot taxi for 45 minutes. Am I really spending this long in horrendous Manila traffic simply to look at a heap of shoes? Yes, yes I am. And less than an hour later, I'm glad I did.

You see, for me, the footwear at Marikina Shoe Museum is not the point of this trip. They are not the attraction, they are symbolic, a representation of an extraordinary period in Filipino history and of the remarkable woman who stood at the centre of this era.

The word "remarkable" is often used as a compliment, to suggest something or someone is better than ordinary. Your thesaurus may list words such as amazing, marvellous and wonderful among the possible synonyms for remarkable. They don't fit here. In this instance, rather than better than ordinary, remarkable is intended to mean out of the ordinary. This is in reference to one of the most unusual and fascinating women in modern Asian history, someone who captivated a global audience. Yet this person has also been convicted of crimes such as corruption, offences that tarnished the reputation of her nation and held back its people. Few people have conflicted the citizens of the Philippines as greatly as Imelda Marcos.

Hundreds of shoes of former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, are displayed at the shoe museum in Manila on September 26, 2012.  According to press reports, quoting national museum officials, shoes of former first lady Imelda Marcos, being kept at the national museum, which were left behind when the Marcos family fled the country in 1986 during a popular revolt, have been damaged by termites, and floods. AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE (Photo by TED ALJIBE / AFP)
Hundreds of shoes of former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos are displayed at a shoe museum in Manila. AFP

Who is Imelda Marcos?

The wife of Ferdinand Marcos, who was the president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, she wielded immense political power. As the first lady of the Philippines, she instigated many major development projects and was the country's chief diplomat, regularly representing her nation at important international events. She and her husband fled the country in 1986, but she returned five years later and continues to have a hand in Filipino politics, in one way or another.

Globally, she was known for her ostentatious fashion and exorbitant spending. These went hand in hand. Nothing embodied this excess of consumption better than her collection of more than 3,000 pairs of shoes, about 700 of which are displayed here at the Marikina Shoe Museum. Her giant assortment of footwear was part of Marcos folklore.

So unusual were the details and stories that came out about Imelda that she almost seems like a fictional character. She had an army of servants, called Blue Ladies, at her beck and call. While many of her compatriots struggled with poverty, she flaunted her wealth through jewellery. As Manila's key infrastructure decayed, she had unnecessary public buildings constructed with her name on them. 

But after about 20 years in power, she and her husband were toppled by a popular uprising and she's since spent more than 30 years trying to stay out of jail. In that time she has fought a slew of corruption charges. Yet she still has many fans in the Philippines.

Her ability to remain relevant, and to attract new fans, has long fascinated me. This was part of the reason I wanted to visit Marikina, to develop a greater understanding for how she cultivated her public image and how her eye-catching fashion was central to that.

It was her sense of style that first secured the attention of Filipinos. She and her husband became a political power couple in the mid-1950s and by the time he won the presidency, Imelda was an A-list celebrity. When she took the role of first lady, she also became the most talked-about woman the Philippines had known, and may ever know.

Inside the official residence of the president they discovered hundreds of elaborate gowns, almost 1,000 expensive handbags and nearly 3,000 pairs of designer shoes

In-depth profiles of her early days in the spotlight, written by Filipino authors, noted how the public was proud to have a first lady who looked so regal. She was, in the eyes of many Filipinos at that time, a positive role model and a fine ambassador. With her beauty and elegance, Imelda was the country's very own Jackie Onassis, the stylish widow of US president John F Kennedy, who was assassinated three years prior to Ferdinand Marcos taking power in the Philippines.

While Imelda's clothes were always of the highest quality, it was her shoes that became famous. After the Marcos family fled to Hawaii, protesters broke into Malacanang Palace, the official residence of the president, and discovered hundreds of elaborate gowns, almost 1,000 expensive handbags and nearly 3,000 pairs of designer shoes.  

Where is Marikina Shoe Museum?

More than three decades years later, I'm wandering around a 19th-century Spanish colonial building in Marikina looking at hundreds of pairs of Imelda's high heels. Alongside the glass cabinets in which her shoes are displayed are more than a dozen images of Imelda meeting world leaders and celebrities.

The splendour of some of the high heels has faded with time. Others look almost new. All of them are clearly expensive, crafted from high-end materials such as leather, velvet and precious stones. There are pumps, stilettos, wedges, sling-backs, platforms, peep toes and even some knee-high boots. Mostly their colours are muted – black and grey abound. Many of the shoes look extremely similar. As if it wasn't already odd enough to have thousands of shoes, I find myself wondering why anyone would want hundreds of pairs that look almost identical. Then again, for Imelda, enough was clearly never enough.

Marikina Shoe Museum showcases more than a dozen images of the former first lady meeting with world leaders and celebrities, including former Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell
Marikina Shoe Museum showcases more than a dozen images of the former first lady meeting with world leaders and celebrities, including former Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro. Courtesy Ronan O'Connell

Her shoes take up the entire second floor of the museum, which is in a whitewashed building previously used as an arsenal, before becoming a detention centre during the Philippine-American War of 1899 to 1902. After the US victory, this area was named Marikina. The reason this museum is located here, on the eastern outskirts of Manila, is explained by what happened here before that conflict started.

In the 1880s, Marikina became a town of shoemakers and cobblers. It started with only a few such artisans. Then, as the town's reputation for quality footwear spread, more and more shoemakers set up workshops here. This industry took a hit during the Second World War, when Marikina was occupied by the Japanese, but then bounced back in robust fashion after the end of the war.

Marikina remains the country's biggest hub of shoe production, known for the quality of its leather footwear

In the 1950s, footwear factories were set up across Marikina, which was described as the shoe capital of the Philippines. It still holds that title, as the town remains the country's biggest hub of shoe production, known for the quality of its leather footwear, which is exported all across the world.

The museum is surrounded by shoe shops. Interested in buying a pair of leather loafers, I wander into a few of these stores. Each time, the sales staff look at my size 15 feet, try not to laugh, shake their head and apologise for not being able to help. One cheeky young man advises me to try the nearby Riverbanks Mall, which is home to one of the world's largest pairs of shoes, more than five metres long and two metres wide. They sound almost big enough to store Imelda's entire shoe collection in. That would be weird. Although not much weirder than her extraordinary life story.