Graduation shoes

by Jenny Hockey

Sitting up on the platform at graduation, fully-robed, was a great shoe-watching opportunity. As graduates-to-be came up the steps I could see many were nervous. It was hard to walk across that platform looking cool, as if you belonged there. Many women wore  striking, maybe new pairs of shoes, often with towering heels. Was this a good idea?  For some, the challenge of high heels seemed to add to their self consciousness. Outside on the campus I got a better view of the protective plasters. Reportedly plasters also littered on the graduation hall floor.

As any anthropologist will tell you, rites of passage often involve pain and humiliation – ritual scarring, crawling on your hands and knees in public view.  Were the new graduates using pain and embarassment to imprint their rite of passage into their memories?

Data from the Shoe Project suggest a different story: for women of different ages, high heels are an important way of marking out a ‘special occasion’, whether it’s a night out, a wedding, a race meeting. Without them the event loses something, they can’t ‘rise to the occasion’ in the same way.  As both women and men walk across the platform and take up their new status, shoes associated with traditional femininity, rather than gender equality, make their presence felt, quite literally. What does this suggest for graduates’ futures?

Another observation, from a wearer of robes, just like the graduates: in them I am a woman in men’s clothing. In drag perhaps? I have no tie to slide the cord of the hood under.  I have to loop it on my blouse button. It tugs at it, makes my blouse slide out of my skirt. Unlike male colleagues I have to manage and adjust my clothing all the time. Their dark suits disappear nicely under the gown, but there’s no equivalent in my wardrobe – not with that all-important blouse button.  What does this tell us about identity?

Some people look very ‘together’ as they walk across platform, but many don’t. Am I witnessing a disturbing assemblage of different identities when I see a woman wearing a very short, revealing dress and enormous heels under this masculine apparel? Or when a man has dreads stuffed under his mortar board, a short sleeved shirt and trainers? Have contexts collided here? The night club and the old boys’ club? Is this why we know when someone has the ‘right’ shoes for a particular outfit, why choosing them is so important?

Or is the whole of student life a rite of passage, not just graduation?  You leave home and spend three years betwixt and between adolescence and adulthood, trying on identities for size, along with sex and recreational drugs? Is graduation your re-entry into sobriety, the nine-to-five, adult obligations? Does the gown and mortar board presage all those other ‘uniforms’ waiting for you? Is that walk across the platform your last chance to poke society in the eye and wear something a  bit outrageous, something that shouts ‘me!’ from out of that black cloth? One graduate gave the Chancellor a smacker of a kiss on his cheek, not a damp handshake, then waved her fists triumphantly, her dare dared. He didn’t seem to mind.

I walked across that platform years ago.  Now I’m on the sidelines.  What’s your view?  As a shoe wearer?  Or a watcher?

Photographs taken by Alexandra Sherlock during the 2011 University of Sheffield graduation ceremonies.
Our thanks to all who participated.
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14 Responses to Graduation shoes

  1. Angela Meah says:

    I simply don’t get the phenomenon of high heels: how can something that can potentially lead to a broken ankle – at worst – and – at best – to humiliation as you fall on your face, be a source of power?? The power is in the thing in your head that got you onto the graduation platform in the first place, not what binds your feet. Use it. Choose to wear something striking, individual and above all COMFORTABLE. Remember yourself as striding confidently toward the PVC to plant that smacker, and not as doing a Naomi Campbell in front of a crowded hall full of your peers.

    Yes, shoes say a lot about who you are. Let them say what you want to be remembered for: “she towered above everyone in her comfy shoes and she kicked ass”.


  2. OliviaV says:

    At my graduation one girl in ill-advised mules, took her first step to cross the stage and receive her handshake and promptly left her shoe behind.
    I am sure she was mortified but it livened up an otherwise dull afternoon.


  3. Vicki Crossley says:

    From a petite perspective; I bear many scars from my footwear and I’m proud! May I add most have been the cause of flip flops and flat office pumps. I love my killer heels for socialising, chosen carefully I’ve never felt the pain or suffered any falls. Is this due to common sense and lack of control of the individual (I mean alcohol) I wonder?
    I am currently sat at my desk with my compeed plasters on wearing purple faux suede and patent black flats. I adore them, it’s worth the pain! The fact is no matter how high, no matter ‘ow much, the sense of feeling good about myself they can bring is priceless.


  4. David Barker says:

    Errrr….. not my specialist subject, but maybe the source of power stems from their potential implementation as eye-ball gouging or testicle popping implements?


    • Angela Meah says:

      Come off it David – what about your trainers? They’re footwear also, and surely enable you to carry off some identity performance as a ‘runner’??


      • David Barker says:

        The fact that 99.9% of the time that I’m wearing trainers i’m actually running is also a bit of a give away that I’m a runner. If anything when dressing casually I make a conscious effort to avoid anything trainer-like as I’m trying to project an image of someone who doesn’t wear their sportiness on their sleeve. The only times trainers come out other than for exercise are for mowing the lawn and walking to the takeaway.


      • Angela Meah says:

        So what you wear on your feet IS saying something about ho you perceive your identity in different roles and different spaces!!


  5. Angela Meah says:

    [img] shoes2.jpg[/img]


  6. Fiona Candy says:

    Really enjoyed your story about graduation shoes, Jenny. I attended two degree ceremonies this year, and found myself, like yourself and Alex, shoe spotting at both of them. I was particularly fascinated to see the styles of shoes being worn by the (all but one) female students I’ve worked with for three years, as knowing these students revealed surprising, and in some cases unexpectedly extreme methods of ‘rising to the occasion’. Where had the jeans wearing, tee shirted students from the textile workshop gone? There certainly was a sense that the applied body skill required to move across the stage to shake the Chancellor’s hand was an important part of the ceremony- and that the degree of self-inflicted difficulty, was all part of the significance of the occasion.

    At the first of the two graduation ceremonies, I was in the audience and was given a special opportunity by being seated in the very front row. From my position, I felt I witnessed a communal rite of passage where cloth and adornment, including footwear, all played their role in a process of transformation. I saw the heavy black robes flowing and billowing as each wearer moved forwards with the potential for personal drama and gravitas; the gowns’ fullness flowing from the shoulders, seeming to blur the body silhouette, and to summon up the magical, shifting moment that lay between the before and the after… that would allow the undergraduates the space to ‘become’. It got me thinking about sorceror’s, wizards, magicians and their cloaks. The uniform, generic shape and size of the gowns seemed also to liberate the individual qualities of each graduate- some bounced, some marched, others swaggered, teetered, sashayed or swept across the stage. Many of the smaller women showed just a glimpse of ankle and shoe below the hem; where the tallest men revealed lengths of leg and trouser, grounded with shiny shoes. Occasionally, a pair of trainers squelched by, or rebellious Converse pumps sauntered past…

    At the second ceremony I was a member of the academic party on stage, so I got to dress up in my own magical cloak of blackness, along with the so serious mortar board that levelled my head and posture, enabling a tasselled, gravitas. I don’t know if anyone could see this temporary shift in my demeanour or not, but I certainly felt the gown’s affect as I swished and flowed in procession with my colleagues up to the stage, organ music filling the air. I was wearing heels – black kitten heels. But I had to very defly remove them part way through the ceremony, as my feet were becoming so sore. This must have reduced my air of gravitas somewhat for anyone who caught a glimpse of my poor old feet without their containers.

    It was wonderful and very satisfying to see the group I’d got to know over three years, at the ceremony that marked their passage from being students to becoming knowing, skillful design practitioners. It was also a chance to observe and feel the role that the materials and objects worn on our bodies play in our social lives: how our clothing affects not just the way we look and feel, but also the quality of time and space around us.


  7. Jenny Hockey says:

    The ‘squelch of trainers’! Wonderful. Fascinating to have the point of view of someone who’s seen the ‘before’ and so has a very acute view of the process of ‘becoming’ . And I enjoyed the additional insight – from someone working in textile design -about the relationship between the gown and the body-in-motion. Something I meant to add to my discussion of the gendering of academic dress was that, given that there are no pockets in gowns (or, as they say, shrouds), where does your stuff go? Men-without-handbags are OK, their suits are designed to carry wallets etc, but I had to leave my handbag in the cloakroom and then stuff my cloakroom ticket under my hat!


    • Fiona Candy says:

      Top tip from one of my colleagues- (we didn’t have a cloakroom) put your purse and other neccessaries in the sleeves – their kimono like construction means they are sewn up across the long ends- so just like a bag!! This can restrict the swishing, flowing and billowing affect though, so could be counterproductive! I meant to mention in response to your comment about the loop and the blouse button: the lady who helped us get dressed up, had the cunning idea of using a length of shirring elastic to put through the loop and then through the front of your bra. She was good fun as well as inventive, but she would keep insisting on straightening up my mortar board to horizontal. I was trying to wear it at a casual jaunty angle, but it wasn’t allowed. Thought it interesting though, that the robes of academic ‘knowledge’ have to be worn just so…to be very ‘serious’… and I wondered if this reflected an exacting, strict construct of discipline and the academic habitus…? Perhaps the mortar board works to moderate the free flowing shape-shifting of the gown. Needless to say, once I was out of her backstage domain, I tipped my hat back to jaunty, and allowed the hood to slide just slightly off the shoulder…( why do I feel I have to do that..?) 🙂
      Jenny, I’ve been meaning to mention Valerie Steele’s article about brogues and academia if you are not already aware of it- I think it was in the very first edition of Fashion Theory.


  8. Rachel Dilley says:

    Heel, heels, heels – they seem to be everywhere and yet there are plenty of women who prefer flats, trainers and other comfortable footwear, unashamedly and unapologetically like Angela, even for formal occasions such as graduations. While carrying out the research for the If the Shoe Fits project, I’ve heard stories from each generation about the damage wearing high heels has done to their feet and the problems it’s caused in older age. Yet the recent fashion for colossal heels will surely cause even worse foot and mobility related health problems as the current generation of young women enter their 40s, 50s and 60s. Why isn’t there the same imperative for men to wear shoes that can destroy their feet, lead to twisted ankles, chronic knee and back problems and worse? What were the men wearing to their graduations? Was it the trainers they’d worn day-in-day-out for the last three years or a polished pair of Oxfords? I doubt their footwear made them feel self-conscious as they stepped onto the stage, although any number of other things may have, but the fear of falling and humiliation seems only to be a rite of passage for women, if indeed that’s what it is. If pain and embarrassment is being used to imprint this rite of passage into the women’s memories, what’s imprinting it into the men’s? Maybe there are other reasons they remember (or forget) the shoes they wore as they took to the stage. Maybe it’s the confidence in their stride which comes from the assuredness in their footing, the purposefulness, a different kind of demeanour that the lack of foot pain and the absence of anxiousness about possible shoe-related humiliation can bring about.


  9. Fiona Candy says:

    Hi Rachel – your great comment about the different kind of demeanour and the sure-footed purposefulness of the ‘male’ stride has got me thinking about how heels are seen to accentuate or define a ‘female’ way of moving. … I think you are really onto something when you notice how heels change demeanour to something more ‘female’ – or less ‘male’, and I’ve been trying to think of an adjective that would be in contrast to ‘sure-footed’ and that could describe something more female in a positive way… without resorting to words like ‘teeter’ ‘mince’ or ‘sashay’. Yes there is pain and the possibility of humiliation for the female heel wearer – but there must also be gains….a different kind of sure, or even not so sure footedness, that can nonetheless have a positive affect on both wearer and observer. Its a tricky one though isn’t it, because much of the language that is available can seem perjorative in genedered ways…..But maybe ‘slink’, ‘strut’ or ‘glide’ could be appropriate descriptors of when heel wearing is done with skill? Must be some others. I wonder if languages other than English have better adjectives or more verbs in relation to movement and shoe wearing? Maybe italian has more range because of its particular history of shoe making? Or spanish (and flamenco…?). A friend was telling me recently about how she buys her shoes in Buenos Aires via the internet, to wear when she dances
    (and teaches) the tango, because she considers that they are perfectly constructed for the moves of the dance. You’ve got me wondering about the connections between shoes, cultures, language and styles of demeanour.


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