‘Master of pain’ – A Podiatrist’s Response

by Wesley Vernon

It was with interest and somewhat horrified fascination that I read Claudia Croft’s interview with Christian Louboutin in the Sunday Times Style Magazine (16th October 2011).  As a podiatrist with an interest in footwear from clinical and research perspectives, the article presented to me a world that I recognized. However it also presented viewpoints containing elements that to me are alien, questionable and at the same time, if true, somewhat depressing.

In the article, Louboutin considers footwear of a certain type within the context of sex and sexuality, suggesting that such shoes are sexually symbolic and that a certain degree of sado-masochism is associated with the wearing of such shoes.  This may be true to some individuals and much has been written about footwear from the perspective of sexuality. However as a researcher, I would question how generalisable such statements are and on what basis the comments have been derived.  In order to interpret, one needs a context within which to place that interpretation.  Given the overtly sexual viewpoint of Louboutin, it is possible (even highly probable) that his interpretations lack the background to represent the viewpoint of the wider female population.  As such, his comments may apply to a very specific population only, yet give the impression that they apply to all.

I would similarly question the implication that women are helped to become empowered and achieve high positions through the wearing of painful footwear (as in the example given in the article).  I have had the pleasure of working with many highly intelligent, powerful, successful women, all of whom have achieved their success through merit, not self-harm.  Again, I would not doubt that Louboutin’s suggestions pertain in some areas.  What I would question is whether this is the norm, and I suggest instead that this position represents a more limited and not generalisable viewpoint.  In questioning both of these areas, I consider that the article could present a distorted and misleading position to many, which, if influential, could have harmful consequences.

The most depressing aspect of all is the suggestion that women may feel the need to self harm through footwear in order to achieve “freedom, power, success and sex”.  If this perspective is correct (and again, in general terms I would question this), then we have not moved far from the practice of foot binding, which used to take place in China and far from being empowering, suggests that women can still become prisoners to their own shoes and to the dictates of male shoe designers.

In my work, I have clinical responsibilities to patients and to the general public, to help them find footwear that is conducive to their continuing health and general well-being and which will prevent problems – some of those serious and life changing, depending on personal circumstances.  At the same time, however, I would be the last person to attempt to deprive someone of the freedom to make a personal choice, whether that choice be good or bad.  I do, however believe that where possible, that choice should be informed – that someone is fully aware of the consequences of making that choice.

In this sense, where someone wishes to purchase footwear that a podiatrist would consider to be harmful to them personally, my duty is to point that out and having that knowledge, if they wish to go ahead and harm themselves, they do so in full light of the possible consequences.  Despite not being on my “recommended list”, I recognized that such shoes are viewed by many as glamorous and that a number of women wish to wear these.  The ideal is to wear a more sensible shoe for everyday activity and if you wish to wear them, to keep such shoes for occasional use, thereby limiting the harm that could result.

In relation to footwear, I would therefore urge the female population to do what you want to do, but to do this with open eyes.  Be aware of the consequences of wearing over-styled shoes on a day to day basis and do not let anyone pressurize you into believing that such shoes will bring you greater freedom, power, success or desirability.  Given the wrong circumstances, they could instead do quite the opposite.


Professor Wesley Vernon OBE is currently the Head of Podiatry Service at the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and visiting Professor at Staffordshire & Huddersfield Universities. Professor Vernon also provides forensic podiatry teaching sessions to the National Policing Improvement Agency and the Diploma in Forensic Human Identification now held at Barts.  

For information and advice on how to choose shoes and maintain healthy feet visit the Healthy Footwear Guide, or the Society of Shoefitters and Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists websites.

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If the Shoe Fits, If the Dog Fetches

by Kath Woodward
I have had quite a few dogs in my life. I am a dog person and dogs have always been part of my life. As a child we had spaniels, boxers, corgis and sometimes puppies who resulted from a mixing of the boxer and the corgi!
I also have a huge number of pairs of shoes: lots and lots all over the house, not really neatly put away in appropriate cupboards. Shoes and dogs probably don’t mix apart from cosy images of the dog bringing you your slippers at the end of the day. Dogs, especially puppies have a tactile relationship that can be destructive especially to fashion shoes: dogs and shoes don’t really lie happily together.
We have had several labradors over the last thirty years, the years when our four children were growing up and the dogs are a reference point, central to our lives together. Each of these labradors has shared my delight in shoes, especially delicate strappy high heeled sandals, or flowery Boden flip flops or patent pumps. Dogs, of course prefer the shoes to be in their mouth. Sam loved my shoes. Long after the chewing stage of puppyhood, he would collect any one of my (nobody else’s in the family-just mine) shoes and take it to his basket in his mouth, his soft mouth designed for retrieving birds undamaged. Eppy, his companion for many years and also a black labrador was different. She was lean and athletic and Sam was chunky and slower. Eppy was different in her relationship to shoes. She didn’t bother much with my shoes until the last 6 months of her life, when, having been diagnosed with a tumour on her lung when she was only 9, but still quite lively (steroids work-for a while) she began collecting my shoes, one at a time. She would just pick one up and carry it about. She died last month and I am sad. I have a pair of Repetto black patent pumps that I shall keep for ever ( even though they are a bit tight). She loved them and one has a clear tooth mark in the toe. Hers.
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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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Northampton Shoe Museum Sneaker Speaker Symposium

by Jenny Hockey

Northampton Guildhall – 2nd April 2011                                                                                           Click on the image below to view a summary of the day…

This symposium accompanied two linked exhibitions at Northampton Shoe Museum, one entitled ‘From Sport to Street’ which evidenced the development of the modern trainer and its history in sports shoes of different kinds (opened January 2011) and the other, Sneaker Peek, focussed on sneakers, the work of a group of young people, including a video made by them.

Rachel Dilley and Jenny Hockey gave a talk entitled ‘Who do you think you are?’ which introduced the project’s focus on identity and explained why we had chosen shoes as the lens through which to work on this theme. It then explored analytic ideas emerging from focus group data, using the example of trainers to illustrate them. A key point was that for people in some social categories, trainers had not made the transition from sport to street and were not seen as desirable footwear. Also noteworthy was the importance of local knowledge in recognising particular trainers, and their wear marks, as indicators of social identity and belonging. Finally, we asked what the future of trainers was likely to be and considered the possibility that older retired adults might well be a social category for whom trainers would become important.

Alongside this talk, with its focus on contemporary empirical data, two historical presentations outlined the story of the lawn tennis shoe and its transition to fashionable leisure wear at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the history of the plimsoll. In addition the practice of collecting vintage trainers was a key theme throughout the day with a photographer’s images of collectors complementing an interview with a key trainer collector. Alongside academics, trainer collectors made up a large part of the audience at this event. Participants had also contributed a collection of vintage spiked running shoes and customised footwear. A drinks reception in the museum after the day’s symposium provided an opportunity for networking and this was made use of enthusiastically.





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Little Black Dress Exhibition Review

LBD Little Black Dress Exhibition at the Civic,  Barnsley 31st March – 20th May, 2011

by Jenny Hockey

Walking into this exhibition to the sound of Piaf and a proliferation of black and white images felt like an invitation to pleasurable nostalgia.  Arranged chronologically, the visitor moves by decades from the 1920s through into the 1990s and then onwards to a line-up of little black dresses, the work of 25 different designers, some known  internationally, some local to the area.

Yet what lends this exhibition its coherence is the ubiquity of black, the sameness of ‘little’, flattering dresses, photographed, displayed and also there to be witnessed in archival catwalk footage.  One question pervades the exhibition. What is it that makes the LBD such an enduring prototype for different designers, different media stars – from Marlene to Jackie Kennedy, from Hepburn to Diana Princess of Wales, and for ordinary women who embraced the Dior ‘New Look’ in some form in the 1950s, the 1960s beatnik turtleneck and slim pants, the mini, 1970s punk, 1980s power dressing extravagance, 1990s sexiness of underwear as outwear, black lace and slits to the thigh?  Bill Blass, a designer, said that if you felt you were too big then black made you look thinner and smaller – and if you thought you were too small, then black made you look important. His statement suggests that the LBD might be more about conformity than individuality, yet the items on display also undermine this view.

Along with its extreme versatility, as the LBD is continuously reinvented to reflect changing gender relations, new technologies and emergent trends in art, it is described as ‘timeless’ in its appeal, the easy and reliable answer to the ‘what shall I wear today’ question. For me, the re-locating of black dresses from World War One mourning to fashion wear was particularly interesting – not that mourning dress was in any sense fashion, or status neutral.  When Coco Chanel first conceived of the LBD in the 1920s, she saw it as a style and colour that she could reclaim from its clerical and deathly associations.  With her concern to explore the scope of ‘masculine’ tailored simplicity for enhancing ‘feminine’ chic, she launched the little black ‘Ford’ dress, so called because of its mass appeal, a dress that outsold Ford cars.

What the exhibition’s curator, Polyanna Clayton-Stamm, has laid out so accessibly in its panels is the subsequent career of Chanel’s LBD, its ultra-simple, modernist silhouette. The contributions of Schiaparelli and Surrealism, the varying demands of Hollywood’s silent movies and the ‘talkies’, and Film Noir of the 1940s, stand alongside evidence of the capacity of black to stand for both high end, elite fashion as well as 1960s’ beatnik anti-fashion and punk’s appropriation of sexual fetishism, black rubber, plastic, leather, fishnet.

Most of what is on display in this exhibition is fashion to be looked at, rather than dress to be ‘dwelt in’. Yet the many many ways in which fabric and tailoring embraced the body – despite the restriction to a single colour – do invite the embodied viewer to imaginatively step inside the sinuous drape of black satin, the clutch of black lace about the waist. And the wearers of these dresses do talk back about their experiences, to some extent: Monroe spoke her tight, spaghetti-strap LBD as her ‘lucky dress’; Hepburn said that the wardrobe Givenchy designed for her made her feel as though she had been born to wear it.  Rudofsky, in his book The Unfashionable Human Body said that ‘the intoxication of wearing certain articles of clothing can be as powerful as that introduced by a drug’, though it is not clear who he was speaking for.  His statement echoes the promises of transformation offered by some sections of the shoe industry, yet the LBD in some of its manifestations appears to enable conformity rather than transformation, a reliable vehicle for participating in shared identities. Perhaps its persistent appeal lies in the fact that it is sufficiently open in its symbolism and style to register the innovations and references of vastly different periods during the last 90 years

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