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.