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.


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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If the Shoe Fits: Project film.

This short film, produced by Sheffield Vision, introduces our research project at the University of Sheffield which is finding out how shoes contribute to people’s identities and the ways in which footwear enables them to move between different parts of their lives. It focusses on a few of our participants to give an insight to some of the fascinating data the project is generating, much of which will be reproduced in academic articles and a documentary film – so watch this space for more information.

Please follow the link below to watch the film which is 12 minutes long. We’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on the film and the project so please feel free to post your comments either on the blog (below) or on Youtube.

If the Shoe Fits. Short FilmIf the Shoe Fits. The Project.

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An Industry Perspective of the development of the Shoe

by Rachael Murdoch

The footwear industry dates back to cobbler stores in medieval times. Since then, many changes have occurred in the footwear market; the most influential of these being the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th to mid-19th Century, when mass production allowed shoes to be made in generic sizing. This paved the way for shoes to be made cheaply and universal ownership to be a realistic prospect. It was at this time that stores exclusively selling shoes originally emerged.

The selling of shoes has been affected in the last century by the peaks and troughs that the economic climate of the UK has endured. This has, in turn, played its part in the fashions of the century, with wants, needs and musts being tailored to the fiscal situation of the nation.
In 1914-1918 the First World War implanted a desire for a practical choice of shoe for women, who adopted the roles of workers that had previously been filled by men, who were now fighting in the war. The lace-up boot that had been worn as a fashionable item at the turn of the century became a practical and indeed stylish design, although at the end of the war the trends abruptly changed to incorporate bright colour and more intricate design, in an attempt to cast off the grim wartime depression. Art Deco became the trend of choice with crystals, faux gemstones and embroidery embellishing styles. The Flapper fashions and dance trends such as the Charleston demanded a securely fashioned shoe for ladies, with a low heel and closed-toe protecting the feet in this quickstep dance.

The Wall Street Crash in 1929 saw the world plunged into a financial depression, meaning that the demand for footwear that was of a higher quality, ensuring it lasted longer, grew greatly. At the end of the 1930s, the Second World War stretched this need even further, with a shortage of leather, which was reserved for military use, and a ban on rubber usage for anything non-essential, forcing shoemakers to use materials such as wood and cork. Heel heights became limited so as not to use excess materials, but this was addressed at the end of the war with the introduction of the stiletto heel to contemporary fashion. Trends became more diverse and as financial conditions improved after the war, small businesses were able to enter the industry.
It was during the 1960s that the shoe industry saw its next greatest change, as young people found themselves with more money to spend, and began to experiment with fashion. Long boots in bold colours and metallic materials became a popular choice, leading onto the glam rock and punk styles of the 1970s. The 1980s saw a dramatic increase in the desire for designer labels, as young people with money to spend looked to flaunt their wealth.
More recently, beginning in the 1990s, a movement back towards a demand for quality and comfort, as well as style, occurred. The popularity of labels and the pricing that put them into the luxury market proved to be as popular as ever, a trend that still shows no sign of slowing. The rise in demand for heel heights continued too, although paradoxically, along with an increased appetite for comfortable footwear.
The introduction of the internet at this time proved to be the beginning of the change in the way people shop and the way in which retailers target their audience.
In 2011, Mintel estimated that total online shoe sales in the UK reached approximately £660m, approximately 8.3% of the total footwear market, forecasting this spending to double by 2016 and threatening the high street and particularly independent stores. Over half of all consumers buy new shoes to replace a pair which has worn out, though over a quarter purchase new shoes as a treat, indicating that shoes are currently seen as a fashion accessory as opposed to a necessary commodity – and men are just as likely to treat themselves as women!
However, the ways in which people currently shop for shoes is not only expanding online. Vending machines situated near nightclubs offer compact and comfortable shoes for the journey home, for when high heels have begun to take their toll. In Spain, ShopInstantShoe are using an intelligent leather material to shape shoes to the wearer’s foot, and in Thailand a company is allowing the consumer to select the creature from which their leather will be crafted.
Whilst fashion trends might be taking influence from the past, the retail industry is pushing forward with innovative marketing and designs to meet the demands of the public who live in a technologically advancing world.
Written by family business Charles Clinkard

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Festival of the Mind – Researchers’ Night: 28th September 2012

Location: Jessop West Foyer, University of Sheffield

Exhibition: 6pm – 8.30pm, Talk: 7.15pm – 7.45pm

On the 28th September we are putting on an exhibition showing some of our research as part of the Festival of the Mind Researchers’ Night. Our exhibit will include a talk by Professor Jenny Hockey about the project; videos, activities and a selection of our participants shoes – each telling a story about their wearers. As part of the exhibition we are asking visitors to tell us their own shoe stories on the back of a postcard. A selection of the postcards will be displayed on this blog – so watch this space!

Richard (60)










Amber (42)

Anna (26)


April (37)


Fiona (46)


Jack (50)


James (30)


 Oliver (36)







Anon (28)


Steve (30)


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‘Boots are made for talking, about who we are’ Review of Virginia Postrel’s Article for Bloomberg View

In April this year a group of American social psychologists published a study entitled Shoes as a Source of First ImpressionsThe study, conducted by the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, aimed to prove that people can make accurate assumptions about other people’s personalities by simply looking at their shoes. Despite its flaws – most notably that all 271 participants (subjects and observers) were undergraduate psychology students, thereby vastly reducing the potential ambiguities associated with varying ages, ethnicities, political affiliations and economic backgrounds – the study has sparked the public imagination: taken up across the globe with headlines like ‘Why this boot means you may be depressed’ (The Sun, June 14th 2012).

Thankfully some of these claims have also been critiqued in the popular press. Virginia Postrel contacted and referenced the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ team in her article Boots are made for talking, about who we are  for Bloomberg View and raised a far more interesting and insightful issue in relation to the publicity the study received:

“By getting so much attention […] it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes.”

She goes on to look at various social, cultural and historical factors that may have contributed to our current interpretations of, and fascination with shoes – suggesting that simplistic reductions of meaning undermine the rich and diverse uses and experiences of shoes in consumer culture today.

Indeed it seems that everyone does have an opinion on shoes which is why it is a joy to be working on If the Shoe Fits, an academic research project that transgresses academic boundaries and engages the public in such a profound way. Our data promise to show that while some people certainly do use shoes to identify others, this process is far from straightforward and certainly can’t be codified or generalised – no matter how attractive this prospect may be. Postrel’s responses to the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project and my own PhD research suggests that an audience for our research is ready and waiting to be presented with some of the sociological realities and fascinating intricacies of people’s relationships with shoes, and with one another through shoes.

To read Postrel’s full article click here.

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