Just over a year ago I received an email telling me about a doctoral research position on a project about shoes. To many this might at first seem like an odd topic, but not to me – and perhaps not to you if you are reading this blog. The reason for my interest was not because I owned loads of shoes – I have about twenty pairs (including old shoes, slippers and wellies), and most of my shoes are probably fairly uninteresting – I was, however, immediately reminded of one particular pair of trainers that I wore when I went travelling in 2002.
After a short and disenchanting career in fashion design I decided to abandon my life in London and booked a round-the-world ticket on a whim after work one day. Once committed, I handed in my notice and started to plan my journey. Clothing seemed to be an important consideration in the planning process; everything needed to be versatile so that I could travel as light as possible. I chose to take one pair of trainers, one pair of flip-flops and some smart black pumps (for work and socialising). The trainers were probably not all that practical: they were cream leather Puma trainers with a pinky-mauve flash on the side. Although the colour was impractical, the shape was flattering, they were comfortable, and I’d had lots of compliments about them. Puma was a recognisable, popular and generally respected brand, which seemed to assure my acceptance in many of the social situations I encountered along the way. The trainers helped me to feel confident when, for the majority of the time, I felt disorientated and unsure of myself. I wore the trainers almost all the time and together we experienced adventures in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – a life-defining and transforming year for me.
When the shoes finally wore out, I sadly disposed of them but I felt an urge to first immortalise them on paper. I realised, through the process of drawing, that after a year of wear they had developed creases, wrinkles and shapes that I knew were unique to me and my journey. I was intrigued by how a mass-produced artefact – owned by hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people – could become so individual and significant to me. Shoes, unlike many other items of clothing, assume the shape of the wearer and it was as though my shoes had become me; but I had also become my shoes – disposing of my trainers was like losing a part of myself.
It is this connection, now, that inspires me in my role as one quarter of the research team of this substantial body of work. When the team first got together we each wrote about our own personal shoe stories. This caused me to realise that all the shoes I remember, dating back to my early childhood, had a particular connection to a transitional time in my life – especially from childhood to adolescence, and on into adulthood. So how do the shoes we wear affect the person we are, the person we want to be and the person we become? Perhaps you have your own stories that can help us to understand the connections between footwear and identity, transition and transformation – if so we’d love to hear them…