We have moved!

Welcome to the relocated project blog for the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ research project.

As you may be aware, this blog was originally attached to a large ESRC-funded project entitled ‘If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition’ in the Department of Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield (2010-2013). The project was led by professors Jenny Hockey and Victoria Robinson, with Dr. Rachel Dilley as research associate and myself as the postgraduate researcher.

The project has now finished, and, as so often happens with initiatives of this sort, the digital outputs hosted by the University are now under threat of deletion. To continue the legacy of the project the blog has therefore migrated to this new WordPress site.

We look forward to continuing the conversations provoked by the original ‘If the Shoe Fits’ research and providing a host of new academic insights to the social and cultural significance of shoes.

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High Heels – Power or Patriarchy?

By Emily Nicholls

On Wednesday 17 July, I dragged myself out of bed at some ungodly hour to slip on my sandals and head down to Sheffield for the Dressed Bodies Symposium and – despite the early start! – it was a fantastic and very rewarding day and a great opportunity to learn more about others’ work on a range of diverse topics around dress and identity.
The ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project was new to me, and the short video we watched on the project provided a fascinating insight into the work and some of the findings. What really struck me as I watched it was the similarities and overlaps with my own research.

When I started out on my PhD journey two years ago, I could never have imagined how important the topic of footwear would be in my own project, which centres around (in)appropriate femininity on a night out in Newcastle (it’s every bit as fun as it sounds!). True, one of my three interview themes is around dress and appearance, but I couldn’t have anticipated how central shoes would be to so many of the young women I speak to, or some of the striking parallels between my emerging themes and those explored in both the ‘Shoe Fits’ project and the symposium in general.

My in-depth, semi-structured interviews with young women aged 18-25 in Newcastle are starting to reveal tensions in the ways in which footwear – and heels in particular – matter to women and what they might represent in terms of empowerment or oppression.

For many of the young women, the high heel takes on an almost mythical status as a symbol of what it means to be feminine. Participants describe very vividly the feeling of slipping into a pair of heels, and the ways in which this action completes an outfit and makes the wearer feel feminine and ready for a night out. For many of my participants, being feminine is about accentuating your curves, and there was a sense that stepping into heels could literally transform physical appearance, sculpting and enhancing the female body:

when you have the heels, it’s like it makes your legs look better, it makes your arse look better, taller, like, it gives you a better figure… [cut]… they shape you, just a bit more feminine, like, the curves… (Ally, 21, bisexual)

Something else that really resonated with me from the ‘Shoe Fits’ film was the idea of putting on shoes to point the feet towards – and sometimes literally embody – the future. For some of the young women in my study, the high heeled shoe represents a transition to an imagined and glamourous future, the shift from student to professional identity:

I like in my head to think that when I’m older and I’ve got, like, a proper grown-up job and stuff that I’ll be able to wear, like, you know, all the… lots of make-up and wear heels, and dress up for work, if you like (Kelly, 21, middle-class, straight)

Heels acting as a marker of maturity was a common theme across interviews, with walking successfully in heels seen as a key achievement of femininity:

…if you can’t wear heels then, like, where have you been?! (Ally, 21, bisexual)

Being able to walk ‘properly’ in heels is very important to several of the participants, often identified as a sign of maturity, class and success. Navigating the street in heels is an achievement that can earn praise and respect from other women:

…a lot of them come up and pay compliments… like they go ‘oh my god, how do you walk? Them shoes are beautiful, how do you walk in them?’ (Kirsty, 23, working-class, straight)

Note that for Kirsty, it is not just walking well in shoes that is important, her shoes are also valued and recognised as ‘beautiful’ by others, validating her taste and cultural knowledge. Several of the other young women also see investment in the ‘right’ kind of shoes as important. This can be – for example – through wearing ‘proper’ high heels rather than smaller or kitten heels (again possibly linking to the idea that to walk successfully in ‘proper’ high heels is an achievement of femininity). For others, investing in more expensive or designer shoes is important; however this is described not as about being ‘snobby’ or showing off a particular brand, but rather about treating yourself and spending your hard-earned money on appropriate attire and accessories for a night out. This reflects a ‘work hard, play hard’ working-class Geordie ethic, and is contrasted with the ‘underclass’ or ‘chaavers’, who are imagined as unemployed and unable to afford the appropriate markers of femininity. For example, when I asked Nicole to describe a ‘chaaver’, she explains:

…cheap shoes – oh god, the shoes – we notice that quite a lot… like, Garage shoes are about twenty quid, you can spot them a mile off (Nicole, 24, working-class, straight)

However, the young women’s experiences of and feelings towards heels are diverse, and not everyone is willing to ‘toe’ the line, as it were. Whilst some young women subscribe to the ‘no pain, no gain’ idea, claiming it was worth the discomfort or even pain of wearing heels, other participants challenge this and resist wearing heels themselves:

I know people who will wear high heels on a night out, even if they make their feet bleed. I’m like ‘why?!’… And they’re just like ‘because they look so nice!’… And I’m like ‘but your feet are in shreds… why?!’ (Donna, 21, middle-class, queer)

Related to the idea of pain, several participants talk about the ways in which heels can restrict and limit movement and ability to explore and experience the city. Similarly, the decision to go home is often made when the pain of wearing heels becomes too much. Heels in this sense literally limit where, how and when women are able to engage with the Night Time Economy.

There are also numerous tales of resistance to the idea of wearing high heels on a night out. Hayley talks about deliberately wearing her oldest, most worn-out shoes for a night out as they are only going to end up ‘wrecked’ anyway, whilst Fiona describes her Doc Martens as ‘multi-purpose’ as she can wear them on a night out for ‘booting skanks’ (kicking women who make a move on her partner). These tales and others articulate alternative discourses around footwear choice on a night out, around ideas of comfort, function and practicality.

This raises for me some of the questions of the familiar debates around agency and empowerment, again, ideas that were touched on at the symposium. Are women being ‘duped’ into actions such as wearing high heels in order to fit a narrow stereotype of conventionally ‘sexy’ femininity for the male gaze? Or does this reading do an injustice to the women themselves and the ways in which they talk about the pleasure of heels and of getting dressed up for a night out more generally? The animated way in which many of the young women talk to me about getting ready – and its often important function as a way of bonding and spending time with female friends – makes me hesitant to simply write them off as undisputed victims of the patriarchy. Whether unwitting Cinderella searching for her prince, or empowered sister doing it for herself, there’s more to heels and their wearers than meets the eye.

Emily Nicholls is a second year PhD student at Newcastle University. To contact her or find out more about her research, email e.nicholls@newcastle.ac.uk or visit http://research.ncl.ac.uk/agnorp/ 

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Dressed Bodies Symposium

By Jenny Hockey

The ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project team hosted a one-day symposium at Sheffield University on 17th July 2013 – after serious difficulty choosing between many inspiring abstracts. In the end we had to go for a long day of short papers! Speakers were Lucia Ruggerone on fashion and emotion; Naomi Braithwaite on the stories behind designer shoes, Anna Catalini on extreme footwear; Karen Harvey on the erotics and politics of the leg among eighteenth century men; Julia Twigg and Chrissy Buse on handbags and dementia; Karin Lovgren on the clothes older women cannot let go of; Mary Madden on surgical stockings and bandaging; Emily Taylor on the absent body and surviving dress; Emily Nicholls on femininity, dress and nights out; Jacki Willson on false eyelashes; Alison Carr on embodying the showgirl; and Pam Walker on ‘immoral’ dress on medieval funeral monuments.

As organisers we thoroughly enjoyed the day. Our decision to go for theoretical coherence within a range of papers that took us beyond footwear itself really paid off. After showing our project documentary and hearing about Alex Sherlock’s work on Clarks Originals, we were then invited to consider questions such as: who do we actually dress for? How does the tension between ‘standing out’ and ‘fitting in’ play out in different contexts? What exactly is it that attracts us to clothing or footwear? How can we understand the emotional dimension of this process? As we’ve found in our own data, nuanced answers to these questions means taking account of transition and change, along with ambiguity and contradiction. So, for example, women’s relationships with their handbags evolves over time, the first and maybe the last handbag potentially marking key life course transitions. And the eighteenth century Scottish women’s clothing we saw photographed contained traces of the passage from girlhood to marriage to parenthood, along with its own processes of ageing as an object in a museum and the changes wrought by conservators. So our mix of contemporary and historical material effectively alerted us to the importance of time and change: by looking back into the more distant past we came to a better understanding of the past embodied in everything we attach to our bodies. Whether as shield or seduction, as erotic spectacle or chaste workaday wear, it is the wearing or the display of clothing and shoes that brings its different facets and affordances to the fore. Whether you are entering adulthood or a care home, posing for an aristocratic portrait or dressing up for a night on the town, these material objects can complete you, enhance or undermine your status, testify to who you once were, or become your remaining personal space – in the case of a handbag. Identity, then, took on the nature of an accomplishment, whether in terms of class or gender, and in the dressed body we were able to explore the resources we might desire but also resist when practising identification.

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Toeing the Line: A sequence of video stories on the theme of travelling a path

by Fiona Candy 2013

In February 2013 I visited India with a group of other artists and designers undertaking research in relation to cotton and textile crafts. We wondered if the ancient handcraft tradition would show us the way to the future as India transforms to become one of the world’s leading economies.  We called our project ‘Globalisation, Time and Imagination’ and we made artworks together and independently in relation to these themes.

I captured the video components of ‘Toeing the Line’ before, during and after the trip, and they record some of my everyday shoe wearing alongside exploration of imagined cultural identities: perhaps you spotted the ruby slippers, and the Indian wedding shoes? The sequence begins as I walk on a sun drenched rooftop terrace at the Vijay Vilas Palace in Mandvi in Gujarat. The palace was a residence of the King of Kutch, designed and built in the 1920’s in a beautiful setting on the coast of the Arabian Sea. The journey shifts locations between Manchester and Preston in Lancashire (where I live) and Ahmedabad, Bhuj, Jaipur and Mumbai. There is a long established connection between Lancashire and Gujarat via the cotton trade and several of the Lancashire locations in the video also have historic relationships with cotton spinning and weaving.

My academic research in design, fashion, health and wellbeing, has encouraged me to interpret footwear as ‘the grounding’ of everyday clothing style; as an artifact  that protects, augments and adorns not just feet, but the entire human body by influencing related styles of dressing , moving and being. By directing the video camera onto myself I aimed to portray feet and shoes in action, being worn: literally shaping me as we stepped out together along life’s journey.  In addition, the activity and process of filming at a downward angle made me intensely aware of the lines, markings, patterns, materials and textures of surfaces underfoot, their interpretations and sensory affect.  I tried not to plan my walking direction, but to follow the ‘signs’ so that the camera recorded unexpected serendipity and what appeared to me as tacit, metaphysical messages at the interface of foot and ground.  For instance when the shadows of a flock of flying birds crossed my path, a patch of intense green liquid appeared in a Mumbai gutter, I passed  through a doorway in the old city of Ahmedabad, or when my pointy Jimmy Choo court shoes were matching (or going against) the pointing graphic arrows on tarmac.

I wore mass manufactured shoes each time, so the title ‘Toeing the Line’ aims to link to attitudes towards collective identities, as well as those of personal agency and resistance, and to the connections between clothing, time and place. Even though in every case the feet doing the walking are mine, the range of shoes and the associated styles of dress subtly suggest the presence and activity of different characters, cultural identities or even of different people toeing the lines. When I watch the video now it seems to me that only the barefoot recordings show my feet physically touching the ground, whereas in the shoe wearing sequences they appear to be almost floating above it, or sliding on its surface as I am carried along. Repeated viewing allows the examination of shifts of pace, the cadence of my footsteps and nuance of movement, as my feet beat the rhythm of embodied time.  I hope the haunting quality of the music conveys the shifting, transient atmosphere of a fascinating journey….

Click on the image below to view the video
Toeing the line video

Music: “Dolna” sung by Shreya Ghoshal, from the Bollywood movie ‘Morning Walk’ (2009),

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Call for focus group participants – do you wear Clarks Originals?

The ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield is now approaching its end, however there is still time to participate in the research. Alex Sherlock the postgraduate researcher on the project will be continuing her research for another year to look at the relationships between representations of shoes, identity and experience. Following a period of research at Clarks headquarters in Street, Somerset, she is focusing on Clarks Originals, a sub-brand of Clarks International. If you or someone you know wears Clarks Originals then she would like to hear from you.

The shoes in question range from the classic Desert Boot, Wallabee, Desert Trek, Lugger and Natalie to the women’s ranges and more recent fashion styles. Focus groups will be conducted in July/August. Whether you’re male or female; have one pair or a hundred pairs, please get in touch to express your interest in participating: a.sherlock@sheffield.ac.uk

Recruitment Advert2

This research has been approved by the University of Sheffield ethics committee. There will be no payment for participating, although refreshments will be served and we hope you will enjoy the experience. The focus groups will be video recorded for analysis and although the research is not intended for commercial use, anonymised recordings will be shown to Clarks to gauge their reactions to consumer experiences of their shoes. We will ask you to fill in a brief questionnaire before participating in the study. For more information about the project visit the project website. For more information about Alex Sherlock visit her department profile page or blog

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Dressed Bodies: A Symposium – registration now open

17th July 2013, Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences, University of Sheffield.

To mark the end of the three-year research project If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition, funded by the ESRC, we are hosting an interdisciplinary symposium in conjunction with the Centre for Gender Research. The symposium is designed to investigate the dressed body in social and cultural contexts with a concern to deepen understandings of identity as an embodied process. We are interested in the dressed body in its broadest sense, from shoes, bags, gloves, scarves, hats and jewellery, to hair, piercings, tattoos and more.

Over the last three decades, work on the body in social theory has gained considerable momentum with increasing emphasis on what it does rather than what is done to it. More recently the body has been seen as the locus through which culture and self merge, are reproduced or indeed are contested and challenged – whether consciously or unconsciously. Both the ‘affective turn’ and attention to mobilities – perhaps the latest advances in body theory – attribute bodies in motion with the power to transcend, disrupt and confuse ‘body image’ ideals. As such, these approaches question the dominance of previous notions of the body as a particularly conscious and intentional project.

Despite these advances in body theory, academics are still seeking what Budgeon (2003) describes as the ‘methods and models’ that help us to transcend the dualisms of mind and body, image and embodiment, and that ‘implicate the subject in the object [lending] insight into the constitutive articulation between the inside and the outside of the body.’ Work on clothing and fashion has begun to develop models of this kind. However, our project has identified further questions that we believe deserve fuller attention. These questions have provided the inspiration for this symposium and examples include:

  • How do the affordances of specialist shoes, for example climbing shoes, football boots or ballet shoes, change body movement or ability in different environments?
  • What does the dressed body tell us about the relationship between representation and embodied experience?
  • How can objects that dress the body carry memory?
  • How might shifts between the ordinary and the extraordinary be effected through dress?
  • What can we learn about identity through the dressed virtual body?
  • How does the imagined body relate to practices of consumption?

Drawing upon these ideas, the papers presented at the symposium use dress as a ‘lens through which to understand our bodily engagement with the world’ in physical, representational or virtual contexts.

Registration fee £20. Registration is now open.

To register and to view the full programme please visit the project website: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/iftheshoefits/symposium 

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Shoes as material expressions of a designer’s self

by Naomi Braithwaite

Having completed a twenty month long ethnography that explored and observed the creative practice of a number of contemporary British based luxury shoe designers, it became significantly apparent that the designed shoes were not solely commercial, aesthetic objects; they were also material representations of the shoe designer’s own self identity. As I spent months in the designers’ studios watching them engage with their ideas, drawings, the flat materials (leathers and snakeskins), that would eventually be worked on to create the 3-d form of a shoe, it was intriguing to hear them narrate how the inspiration for the design stemmed from their own biographies and experiences of life. Part of my research had involved life history interviews that asked the designers to narrate their creative pasts. These were carried out in the studios or homes of the designers and were object based, as they used their archive of past creations to narrate not just how and why they had created that particular shoe, but also memories of their life and experiences at the time of its creation. Much research focuses on the shoe as a finished object which is relational as it forges an intimate relationship with the body of its wearer. What stemmed though from my research was a different way of thinking about the shoe and its relationality. My ethnographic findings revealed that its significance as an object that carries memory starts at the point of creation, and, continues through the design and making process where the individual designers and makers have co-existed in a dialectic relationship that has created a shoe.

I was fortunate to have been able to observe and interview some fascinating shoe designers for my doctorate, one of whom was Terry de Havilland, famously known as the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ cobbler. Spending time in Terry de Havilland’s studio I was not only able to observe him making future designs but also see his vast archive of created shoes, stemming back to the 1960’s. Terry would walk me around his studio and picking up his past creations he would reminiscence about his life around the time of its creation. Particularly significant were his memories of what he termed ‘the rollercoaster of craziness’ that he had experienced during the 1970’s. As he recalled his wild nights out where he absorbed the psychedelic ambience of the surrounding social scene, he demonstrated how his created shoes, through their materiality, embodied his experiences of the time. His favoured design then were platforms made out of iridescent, metallic snakeskins, these were reflections of the craziness of the era and now stand as material representations of not only his creative past but also his own biography. These platforms were made for a commercial end, yet embedded and hidden behind the aesthetic exterior are memories of the designer who brought them to life.

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Terry de Havilland’s Snakeskin Platforms circa 1970’s (authors own)

In 1980 Thea Cadabara, the London based shoe designer, created one of her most famous designs, ‘The Maid’ shoe. Through this design Thea was able to narrate its creation and thus reveal part of her own biography. At the time of its conception Thea’s husband, James, a jewellery designer, had bought her a vintage maid’s set with apron, cuffs and headpiece. Thea made herself a black velvet dress to wear with these but then needed some stylish shoes to complete the look. She designed and made a black pair of shoes with a white pleated apron front on the upper that tied around the back, mimicking the bows of the apron. Putting it in to the context of the time Thea remembered how there had been a revival for the Lyon’s Corner House in London with its ‘nippy’ maids – waitresses in traditional uniforms. The 70’s and 80’s were for Thea and her husband a time of fun, freedom and opportunities for creative expression., evident in the one off pieces that she designed and made. Her husband James came up with the idea for the heels of ‘The Maid’, these were an iconic reference to the shape the female legs form when wearing high heels. He carved these by hand. This particular design is on display in the Northampton shoe museum yet its history and the memories of its creators are invisible to its spectators. Recently Thea has remade the shoe and within it are a whole series of new memories relating to her current past where she has revisited designs from this period and started to re-create them in a contemporary context.

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Thea Cadabara ‘The Maid’ ©Thea Cadabara

It has been well documented that shoes are significant objects for communicating identity and memories for their wearers. The shoe is a structured form but through wearing it takes on the imprint of its wearer’s foot, conforming to the shape and showing evidence of wear across its surfaces. What is invisible to the wearer and observer of shoes though is how the designer and maker’s own history is embedded within the design. As I watched designers like Terry and Thea make shoes it was evident how through their own action upon the materials and forms they were imparting their own physical presence into the shoe. The designed shoes therefore contained both visible and invisible traces of the shoe designer’s creative and cultural biography. Contemporary culture’s fascination with shoes demonstrates through a proliferation of newspaper and magazine articles, how they are ideal objects to communicate feelings and self-identity, yet this tends to mask the significance that shoes have in representing their creators own feelings of self. Through my research I discovered that memories are embedded in shoes and that these go beyond the wearer to embrace the material traces of their creators.

Dr Naomi Braithwaite is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Her doctoral thesis is titled ‘Shoe Design: an Ethnographic Study of Creativty’. The blog article is drawn from the doctoral findings.

 For further information contact Naomi on N.braithwaite@mmu.ac.uk

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