Revealing footnotes

What do your shoes say about you? More than you think, says Caroline Knowles. They hint at your class, job, where you live and even how you spend your leisure time

February 3, 2011

Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin? Most workers in higher education can afford neither make of shoe. But that's the point. Shoes reveal tantalising information about how the social world works, so why do sociologists, anthropologists and historians show so little interest in them?

The idea of a single object shedding light on the wider world captured the public's imagination in A History of the World in 100 Objects, the British Museum/BBC collaboration broadcast last year. Listeners enthusiastically offered their own objects to be analysed for their broader significance. There is a similar project to be done on our footwear and its social meaning.

Edward Tenner, US historian of technology and culture, explores how the tacit knowledge underlying everyday activities changes in different cultures. He devotes a whole section to shoes in his 2003 book Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology. They are, he says, far more than our contact with the world beneath our feet; they help govern our perceptions of it as well.

Shoes reveal social fabrics. They alert us to key areas of social significance and are an effective entry-point for biographical and geographical methods of social enquiry.

The world is divided into those who have shoes and those who don't. According to Tenner, a billion people worldwide walk barefoot, so shoes reveal the social morphology of the world on a global scale. The shoeless live mostly in the global South. The potentially shoeless - that is, the homeless - of the (unevenly) affluent North wear recycled shoes. Photographer and writer Peter Coles' beautiful photo-essay Paris Traces: Shoes explores the Parisian custom of leaving shoes that are no longer wanted neatly on the pavement as a form of recycling.

Citing the work of a "footwear consultant", Tenner puts shoes into seven categories: moccasins, sandals, boots, clogs, pumps, mules and Oxfords. The world's most popular shoes are flip-flops, selling billions because they are cheap. Trainers are second. China is a large-scale producer of both and its expanding number of shoe factories have helped to boost the country's export-led growth and the concomitant rural-to-urban migration.

The next step in the chain, distribution, exposes the global network of the Chinese shoe industry and its impact on local networks. So shoes capture globalisation's social inequalities.

Shoes reveal poverty and excess within the same country and between countries. Imelda Marcos' legendary shoe collection, for example, became a symbol of asymmetric distribution of wealth within poorer countries. Her rehabilitation in Filipino politics coincides with the donation of her collection - Dior, Chanel and Givenchy, all size eight and a half - to the Marikina City Footwear Museum in Manila. Indeed she is the reason Manila has a shoe museum. (Other cities and towns that boast shoe museums include Toronto, Barcelona, Seattle and in the UK, Northampton and Street in Somerset.)

Moving from the global to the urban, shoe styles, prices, qualities and methods of display - a few pairs exhibited with thought and care or dumped en masse in bargain-bucket piles - are a guide to the social geographies of cities. Shoe shops are as stratified as the consumption patterns of the societies and neighbourhoods they serve. The mix of luxury brands and cheap functional shoes displayed in a city tells a bigger story about class, the distribution of reward and social structure.

London's Angel Islington area, for example, has two types of shoe store - expensive and cheap. Shoes reflect the polarised social structure of the area: a mosaic of well-heeled super-gentrifiers and the hard-pressed residents of social housing - a pattern repeated throughout the capital.

Shoes also tell political stories. For example, Johannesburg's inner-city shoe shops display shoes suited to an age of "white flight". They now sell only cheap functional shoes for manual labourers. Luxury high-fashion brands have been relocated, with core businesses, to the suburbs. So, in the qualities and styles of shoes we glimpse the new (still-racialised) post-apartheid geographies of the city.

In addition to exposing the ways in which people move between cities, suburbs and urban areas, shoes also show how people live in their areas. They reveal how people occupy and move through space: through shoes we touch the ground on which our lives are lived.

Shoes are only partly the result of our fashion and personal choices. Because shoes mediate our contact with the ground, they are also chosen to suit the terrain across which we anticipate moving - wet or dry, smooth or rough, wellies, clogs, trainers or wedge heels.

More than clothes, they suggest the means by which we expect to travel. Although the sight of a woman running for the bus in 6-inch heels is not uncommon and suggests that they may be underestimated as a sports shoe, only the hardiest would tackle a 5-mile hike across rough ground in them. Cycling, public transport and private cars - all important kinds of circulation in a world on the move - necessitate their own shoe repertoires.

Shoes play a part in performances of the self too - smart or casual, flats or heels, comfort or style, what is age-appropriate? Shoes show how we want to move our bodies, and what messages we wish our comportment to convey about who we are: slinky or strident? They may also correspond with types of work - those who move or stand all day will take this into account when selecting their shoes.

Shoes mark distinctions between work and leisure too. They reveal our activities, disposition and identity, the ways in which we anticipate engaging with the world and how we see our place within it. Perhaps shoes also show gendered competence - as a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon put it, the dancer Ginger Rogers could do everything Fred Astaire could do, only backwards and in high heels.

Last but not least, shoes reveal our circumstances and attitudes to consumption. How many pairs does someone own and where do they wear them? These questions reveal personal geographies - where do people go? - and the fine social judgements of appropriateness as well as resources.

I have interviewed factory workers in China who have only two pairs of shoes - flip-flops for work and the errands of everyday life and a pair of leather shoes for special occasions. Most readers of Times Higher Education will have many more. Factory owners had more shoes than workers and different ideas about where they could be worn. For the more affluent Chinese, flip-flops - the people's shoes - are appropriately worn inside, not outside, the house.

Here, as well as being a rough guide to income and social status, shoes reveal perceptions of dirt and hygiene. Removing shoes at the door to avoid transporting dirt (or snow) is customary in more places than not.

Entire biographies can be told in shoes. An Ethiopian woman told me recently that she was barefoot until age 19. She got her first pair of shoes when she moved to the city and worked on a construction site. The ground beneath her feet required it. Her prized trainers - a gift from her husband - prompted her account of her relationship with him as well as the broader social relationships in her neighbourhood when, to her horror, they were stolen.

So why are shoes neglected as a research tool? Perhaps they seem too frivolous to yield important social information, even though they feature among other indicators of poverty in the European Union.

But shoes provide a useful method of sociological data-gathering. Clothes do some of the same work, but they do not have the same connection with the ground and the ways in which we move across it. Shoes capture contemporary life on the move in a unique way.

Hopefully they will not be used to distinguish between academics, although as some rather fabulous shoes walk through my own department, it may not be such a bad idea in the brave new world of competition between universities.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments