The Rise of the Slipper

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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 or visit 

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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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