Monthly Archives: June 2012

Abstract for Gender and Visual Representation conference: Winchester University, September 12th, 2012

‘This is not a Pipe Shoe’: Deconstructing the Shoe as a Visual Metaphor for Gendered Experience.

It is perhaps no surprise that shoes are used in visual culture to signify gender and sexual identity. In terms of film, one need go no further than Sandy’s transformational high-heeled red mules in the movie Grease to realise their significance. However, through an innovative set of research methods the research reported in this paper sheds light on the extent to which shoes and gender – through visual metaphor – are enmeshed in much more mundane, and powerful, visual contexts.

Drawing on Butler’s assertion that gender is constituted and also transformed through stylised repetitive acts (1988), the paper analyses the results of a 48-hour content analysis, performed to determine the various ways shoes are represented on television. A small selection of the resulting 170 references will show some of the ways gender stereotypes are not only fortified, but also transformed and subverted through shoes.

During a recent empirical study, the selection of clips was shown to research participants who work in the footwear industry. Their responses revealed that in some circumstances metaphorical use renders particular shoes invisible – even those people most conditioned and likely to notice the shoes were surprised by what they saw. The invisibility of these shoes raises concerns about their subliminal power when representing gender and sexual identity. By shining the spotlight on visual shoe metaphors one is able to ‘make strange’ and therefore deconstruct what we think we know about shoes, and gender.


Butler, J. 1988. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40, 4, 519-531.

For more information about the conference or to register click here to be redirected to the University of Winchester website.

Published Book Review: ‘Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers’

Earlier this year I was asked to review the paperback edition of the book Shoes: a History from Sandals to Sneakers for the second issue of the journal Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, edited by Efrat Tseëlon and published by Itellect.

If you subscribe to the journal click here to read the review.

Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers, Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil (eds),        2011 London: Berg, (448 pp.),                       ISBN 9780857850386, PB, £19.99

‘All my Love’ – documentary filmed and edited by Alexandra Sherlock

In 2010, during my masters in Material and Visual Culture at UCL I completed a documentary filmmaking course. The resulting film was one of 5 selected from a class of 18 to be shown at the annual UCL film premiere screening.


An inspiring love story that focuses on Joan Cattanach’s memories of her 59 year marriage to her husband Sandy. The film documents the importance of objects and possessions in the development of life-long relationships and shows that while objects are essential in order to bond with others in life, their significance, rather than die with the physical body, continues as an important tangible way of connecting with loved ones after death.

To view the film (16 minutes) please click the link below.

Arjun and Igor’s Big Adventure: An Exercise in Modern Urban Exchange and Value Creation

This was an anthropological experiment I did for the methodologies module on the Material and Visual Culture MA at UCL in 2010. The project now forms the basis for a regular lecture on innovative research methods delivered to Design and Visual Culture undergraduate students at Nottingham Trent University. 

Four small plastic toys were released into the world and their journeys were photographically recorded by participants and logged through the social networking site Facebook (to visit the Facebook group click here). Photos were then compiled into a hard-back book with an accompanying essay which drew comparisons between modern exchange practices in the West and Bronislaw Malinowski’s study of the Kula exchange.

The experiment was inspired by Arjun Appadurai’s book ‘The Social Life of Things’ and Igor Kopytoff’s essay ‘The Cultural Biography of Things’. It sought to prove (sucessfully) that Appadurai’s so called ‘tournaments of value’ and Kopytoff’s ‘exchange spheres’ are indeed possible in late capitalist societies and not merely restricted to non-monetized societies like the Trobriand Islands. By following the objects’ biographies through the Facebook page, the experiment gave an effective insight into how material objects accumulate social and sentimental value.

To read the book please click here.


  • Appadurai, Arjun, 1986, Introduction: Commodities and the Politics of Value in Appadurai, Arjun (ed), 1986, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Kopytoff, Igor, 1986, The Cultural Biography of Things in Appadurai, Arjun (ed), 1986, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Conference Paper: ‘Fashion, Exploring Critical Issues’, conference, Oxford, 22nd – 25th September 2011

In September 2010 I delivered a paper at the global fashion conference in Oxford. The paper ‘Footwear: Transcending the Mind-Body Dualism in Fashion Theory’ was based on my early PhD research in conjunction with a sample of the focus group data from the wider research project ‘If the Shoe Fits’. The paper was presented to over seventy delegates from around the world and was received with interest. If you would like to read it please click here. The full programme for the conference can be viewed on the website and my paper will also be available to read in the conference e-book which will be available in due course.

Update, 19th November 2012: the e-book has now been published and a PDF is available for £6.95. Please click here to be redirected to the publisher’s website.

My Shoe Story

In the summer of 2010 I received an email telling me about a doctoral research position on a project about shoes. To many this might at first seem like an odd topic, but not to me. The reason for my interest was not because I owned loads of shoes – I have about twenty pairs (including old shoes, slippers and wellies), and most of my shoes are probably fairly uninteresting – I was, however, immediately reminded of one particular pair of trainers that I wore when I went travelling in 2002.

After a short and disenchanting career in fashion design I decided to abandon my life in London and booked a round-the-world ticket on a whim after work one day. Once committed, I handed in my notice and started to plan my journey. Clothing seemed to be an important consideration in the planning process; everything needed to be versatile so that I could travel as light as possible. I chose to take one pair of trainers, one pair of flip-flops and some smart black pumps (for work and socialising). The trainers were probably not all that practical: they were cream leather Puma trainers with a pinky-mauve flash on the side. Although the colour was impractical, the shape was flattering, they were comfortable, and I’d had lots of compliments about them. Puma was a recognisable, popular and generally respected brand, which seemed to assure my acceptance in many of the social situations I encountered along the way. The trainers helped me to feel confident when, for the majority of the time, I felt disorientated and unsure of myself. I wore the trainers almost all the time and together we experienced adventures in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – a life-defining and transforming year for me.

When the shoes finally wore out, I sadly disposed of them but I felt an urge to first immortalise them on paper. I realised, through the process of drawing, that after a year of wear they had developed creases, wrinkles and shapes that I knew were unique to me and my journey. I was intrigued by how a mass-produced artefact – owned by hundreds, perhaps thousands of other people – could become so individual and significant to me. Shoes, unlike many other items of clothing, assume the shape of the wearer and it was as though my shoes had become me; but I had also become my shoes  – disposing of my trainers was like losing a part of myself.

It is this connection, now, that inspires me in my role as one quarter of the team behind the ESRC funded research project ‘If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition’ at the University of Sheffield. When the team first got together we each wrote about our own personal shoe stories. This caused me to realise that all the shoes I remember, dating back to my early childhood, had a particular connection to a transitional time in my life – especially from childhood to adolescence, and on into adulthood. So how do the shoes we wear affect the person we are, the person we want to be and the person we become? Perhaps you have your own stories that can help us to understand the connections between footwear and identity, transition and transformation – if so we’d love to hear them… please visit our website, blog or facebook page to get in touch or post your own thoughts.