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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Worn Shoes: Identity, Memory and Footwear

Jenny Hockey, Rachel Dilley, Victoria Robinson, Alexandra Sherlock, February 2013, Sociological Research Online, vol. 18, issue 1

As we enter the last 4 months of the If the Shoe Fits project the team are analysing and writing up the data that has been gathered over the last 3 years. At the end of February the first of our publications made it into the peer-reviewed journal Sociological Research Online. This is an open access journal so is available for all to read.

Abstract:

This article raises questions about the role of footwear within contemporary processes of identity formation and presents ongoing research into perceptions, experiences and memories of shoes among men and women in the North of England. In a series of linked theoretical discussions it argues that a focus on women, fashion and shoe consumption as a feature of a modern, western ‘project of the self’ obscures a more revealing line of inquiry where footwear can be used to explore the way men and women live out their identities as fluid, embodied processes. In a bid to deepen theoretical understanding of such processes, it takes account of historical and contemporary representations of shoes as a symbolically efficacious vehicle for personal transformation, asking how the idea and experience of transformation informs everyday and life course experiences of transition, as individuals put on and take off particular pairs of shoes. In so doing, the article addresses the methodological and analytic challenges of accessing experience that is both fluid and embodied.

Click here to read the full article and watch this space for future publications.

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A Week in Mary Beard’s Shoes

Response to: ‘Oh Mary Beard, why did you stoop to writing about shoes?’ (Beverley Turner, The Telegraph, 9th May 2013)

Over the last week social media feeds have been rife with comments about historian Mary Beard’s controversial decision to ‘come out’ and write about her love of shoes for the Daily Mail (8th May 2013). Of all the responses perhaps the most provocative was that of journalist Beverley Turner for the Telegraph. According to Turner, Beard, who has in the past been criticised for being “too ugly to be on TV”, has let herself down by pandering to “idiotic hacks” who have succeeded in “making a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University write about shoes. Yes – shoes.” With almost 3 years of research on the sociological significance of shoes now behind us, and in light of some of our own findings, we felt compelled to contribute to the debate by responding to Turner’s attack.

The Daily Mail is well known for a disproportionate allocation of column inches to shoes, and, disappointingly from our perspective, most of them are in relation to female celebrities and high heels. By excluding issues related to gender more broadly they have been guilty of reinforcing shoes’ status as a solely (pardon the pun) feminine and sensational topic. Indeed, perhaps the very location of the article was partially responsible for what seems like a vehement knee-jerk reaction by Turner. Yet Beard’s account, rather than fortifying a simplistic, even at times misogynist association of women with shoes, actually helps to deconstruct and de-mystify shoes as symbols of oppression.

As Turner herself acknowledges, Beard is an incredibly intelligent proponent of gender equality. She also likes to talk about shoes.  It is here that Turner seems to have missed the point. Opting for a stock, and arguably outdated feminist response, she fails to ask the question: what is it about shoes that enables intelligent women to look past their negative stereotypes and confidently come out and talk about them?

Rather than listening to what Beard has to say about her shoes, Turner appears to have fallen into the trap of assuming that to talk about shoes at all is to dumb down or to reduce ourselves to objects subject to the male gaze. In this respect Turner’s tirade has done more to reinforce the stereotype of women that talk about shoes as mindless dupes and hapless victims of patriarchal oppression than Mary’s original article did.

Beard’s article, written in her own words (despite the addition of the sexualised Daily Mail tagline ‘MARY BEARD says there’s nothing like a new pair of shoes to bring out your inner sex goddess’), tells a very different story.  Far from reducing her identity to ‘shoe addict’ or being ‘made’ to talk about shoes as Turner suggests, she enthusiastically explains the ways that her various shoes allow her to perform her daily activities whether on archaeological digs, cycling around Cambridge or going along to social events; and all done with a sense of style which is clearly important to her – and why shouldn’t it be? She acknowledges the potential that certain shoes have to symbolise oppression, but in terms of her own experience this does not seem to feature. She describes herself as a ‘flattie’ girl, more for their practicality than her feminist morals, and she does admit to an admiration of the skill involved in balancing on a pair of heels as well as their beauty and engineering.

Perhaps most significantly she says: “There is something so levelling in the appreciation of a beautiful pair of shoes that surpasses all boundaries of size, intellect and perceived beauty.” Far from using shoes to directly and defensively respond to her male media oppressors, her shoes provide a way for her to identify with other women (with no mention of men) in her day-to-day life and for them to identify with her. It is this process of identification that underlies Beard’s account and she beautifully articulates the role that shoes, perhaps more than any item of clothing, play in this process.

Our research at the University of Sheffield on how our identities are both made and experienced reveals identity as a very complex process. In contrast to the popular assumption (the one the Daily Mail usually promotes), that shoes signify feminine sexual identity and objectification, we have found that they offer a valuable lens through which to access the various complexities of who both sexes think they are, who they want to be, who they have been and how they manage any transitions between their multiple identities – both on a daily basis and throughout the life course. In Beard’s case her shoes allow her to move between being an academic historian, archeologist, media personality and partner. Much like many of our own research participants she struggles to get rid of significant pairs, like the gold trainers that carried her through her 12 weeks filming the Meet the Romans TV series for the BBC, which allow her to reconnect with memories of a prior identity.

Mary’s account, along with our own research, tells us that there is far more to shoes than Turner would give them credit for. It is partially due to such negative stereotypes that, until now, they have not received the academic attention they merit. Shoes are generally taken for granted but anyone who has worn the ‘wrong’ shoes for an occasion, or who is physically unable to wear the shoes they desire will attest to their potential to help one ‘feel like themself’, or not. In addition, the extent to which they appear in popular culture, as well as frequent debates such as this one shows they are a potent topic of discussion.

Finally, there is a comment to be made in relation to the advances of feminist thought. There is a fine line between critiquing oppression and reinforcing it. Turner’s somewhat polemic response to Beard’s article reinforces precisely the male domination she seems to be arguing against – surely we are moving away from a time when women are bullied into what they should or shouldn’t wear, or, more precisely, what they should feel or say about their footwear choices.

Although it may not have been her intention, Turner’s own stereotyped views on the decisions women make divide them into those stupid enough to fall for the consumer hype of a sexualised femininity, and those who seemingly do not, at the expense of acknowledging individual motivations, context and choice.  Feminists, of course, have long debated these issues and ‘choice’ is rarely as free as it may seem. However, a serious spotlight on shoes enables us to see the complexity of our everyday decisions in relation to our identities, and hopefully avoid the temptation to define these types of decisions as definitively right or wrong.

To read Mary’s own response click here to visit her blog.

Alexandra Sherlock, Dr Victoria Robinson, Professor Jenny Hockey and Dr Rachel Dilley are conducting research for the If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition project at the University of Sheffield. The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. For more information visit www.sheffield.ac.uk/iftheshoefits

 

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Call for Papers: ‘Dressed Bodies: A Symposium’

Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences: 17th July 2013

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 at the University of Sheffield. 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 Burgeon 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, we invite academics and practitioners to submit abstract proposals of up to 250 words for papers or activities that use dress as a ‘lens through which to understand our bodily engagement with the world’ in physical, representational or virtual contexts.

Please submit abstracts to Dr Rachel Dilley via email r.e.dilley@sheffield.ac.uk by 5pm (GMT) on 31st May 2013.

Registration fee £20.

Registration will be open shortly. Click here to visit the symposium registration page

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