The University of Sheffield
If The Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition

Picture of shoes

GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT SHOES

This project makes shoes a starting point for finding out how people take on and move between identities, both on a daily basis and throughout the life course. Shoes are currently high profile in advertising and they also play important roles in popular culture, as well as folklore and fairy tales. It is striking how often shoes are attributed with the capacity to change us, both men and women. For example, the seven league boots that help Puss-in-Boots go up in the world; Cinderella’s ‘glass’ slipper; Dorothy’s red shoes in the Wizard of Oz, Billy Dane’s magical football boots; the promise of athletic performance in Nike adverts; and the representation of the ‘power’ of designer heels in Sex and the City.

What we want to find out is how these images of personal transformation might relate to actual shifts or transitions of identity that go on in everyday life and during the life course. For example, shoes feature within many everyday transitions: between life course categories (baby to toddler, single to married); activities (work to leisure); health and illness (orthopaedic shoes); gender identities (from man to woman); social classes (Reebok Classic to Sloan Loafer); everyday and specialist competencies (mother and climber); and lay and professional identities (from Kickers to the funeral director’s shiny black shoes).

The contribution of shoes to everyday and life course transitions suggests that they are more than just symbols of change. Instead they seem able to change embodied experiences of time, place and identity. In contrast to many forms of clothing, shoes can almost become part of the body, taking on the shape of the foot, and changing the way we move. Many skills and competencies rely on the right footwear, for example, in classical ballet, football and climbing.

WHY SHOES NOW?

Marketing data show a considerable increase in our spending on shoes in western societies and our shoe consumption patterns have dramatically changed in recent years. In 2007 Mintel reported that ‘shoes have moved centre-stage in fashion and have grown much faster than clothing in the last five years’, they are ‘no longer seen as a clothing essential to be bought on a replacement basis only’.

What is driving this change? Is it the promise of transformation with which shoes are imbued in fairytales, popular culture and advertising? Shoe designers seem to think so: Natacha Marro claims that ‘Shoes turn you into someone else’. By addressing these questions, our project contributes to current sociological debates. It asks whether people in relatively wealthy western societies are discovering new scope for self-reinvention through this kind of consumption - or whether individuals everywhere and always have tried to shape their identities and reflected upon the results.

Our project is also concerned with sustainability. How do we care for our shoes, what are our practices when it comes to recycling shoes, shopping in charity shops and other second-hand, sometimes retro, outlets? How else do we dispose of our shoes? Why do we keep shoes we no longer wear (or have never worn)? What makes a pair of shoes unforgettable?