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 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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