All posts by Alexandra

Dr. Shoes

I’m pleased to announce that I have now achieved a doctor of philosophy from the Department of Sociological studies at the University of Sheffield. My thesis, entitled ‘This is Not  a Shoe: An Exploration of the Co-Constitutive Relationship Between Representations and Embodied Experiences of Shoes’, was assessed by Dr. Agnès Rocamora and Dr. Katherine Davies in January, and after some minor amendments was awarded in April. The thesis is due to be edited into a book and so is not freely available online, however if you would like to request a copy please contact me through the blog.

Thesis abstract:

Through their narrative incorporation in fairy tales, song lyrics, in movies and on television shoes have become a ‘loaded device’ recycled as metonymy for the wearer or as metaphor for experience (Pine, 2006: 353). This research argues that in academic studies a consequence of their visual and symbolic ubiquity has been the material invisibility or ‘humility’ of the shoe as a ‘thing’ (Miller, 2005). Following Magritte’s lead in his painting The Treachery of Images (1928-29) I suggest that a tendency to see and analyse the messages shoes convey, rather than the things themselves, has led to a lack of empirical interrogation into the role shoes play in everyday processes of identity and identification. This research addresses this lack, yet rather than separate the shoe from its representations to do so, it unites the material and visual to understand the relationship between representations and embodied experiences of shoes in processes of being and becoming. With a focus on the styles that comprise the Clarks Originals brand, particularly the Desert Boot, the study observes the ‘situated bodily practice’ (Entwistle, 2000b) of those who both produce and wear the shoes to understand them as medium rather than message in processes of identification and transformation. This approach enables us to identify the material and semiotic affordances that lead to their cultural visibility and to gain a picture of the complex ‘networks’ (Latour, 2005) and ‘meshworks’ (Ingold, 2010a) such significant objects facilitate. Consequently, the thesis addresses shortcomings in sociological approaches to fashion theory by offering a meso-level between structure and agency which undermines common dualities between production and consumption, masculine and feminine, and the material and visual. Ultimately, the research argues that Clarks Originals offer a valuable opportunity to understand how and why particular objects become culturally and socially significant and valuable.

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Shoe-watching on Carnaby Street

Carnaby Street: perhaps London’s most famous shoe-shopping location. Filmed during a lunch hour this seven and a half minute video observes the shoes of those passing through the popular location. The sheer diversity of styles, the sounds the shoes make and the ways in which people walk in them allude to the very special and significant relationship between footwear and identity. Who are these people? What do they do? Where are they from? Where are they going and where have they been? – all questions that pass through one’s mind when spending time really looking at the shoes people wear whilst going about their everyday lives.

To learn more about the relationship between identities and shoes visit the If the Shoe Fits research project website at the University of Sheffield, or click on the publication links on my publications page.

‘It’s where the shoe gets you to I suppose’: Materializing Identity with Footwear

Following the fourth international ‘on the Image’ conference in Chicago last year I developed my paper on the relationship between popular culture images and embodied experiences of fashion into an academic journal article in Critical Studies in Fashion & Beautypublished by Intellect. The article uses Clarks Originals shoes and data gathered from a small group of Sheffield-based male wearers to understand how identity is embodied though fashion. It has been published as the lead article of the current special issue on fashion and materiality edited by Tom Fisher and Sophie Woodward. Here’s what they had to say about the article in their introduction:

[Sherlock’s] article effectively manages to combine an understanding of the meanings and associations of the shoes with the material possibilities of the fashionable object. Through the object, wearers are fashioning an identity, which is both anchored in a particular fashion moment and period, yet simultaneously highlights the endurance of a style over time.

The meanings of a fashion object are therefore in part afforded by the materiality of, in Sherlock’s example, the shoe. Her analysis provides an important corrective to semiotic accounts which do not pay attention to the materiality of the fashionable object. (Fisher and Woodward, 2014: 14)

To access the article please click here

Abstract:

Through their narrative incorporation in fairytales, song lyrics, in movies and on television shoes have become a ‘loaded device’ (Pine, 2006: 353) recycled as metonymy for the wearer or as metaphor for experience. Due to such extensive representation this article argues that they have become, in a sense, invisible. In existing academic literature we have tended to see the message rather than the shoe and we become blind to what Miller describes as the ‘humility’ of the shoe as a ‘thing’ (Miller 2005: 5). This neglect of the materiality of the shoe itself obscures the highly nuanced and subjective experiences of the wearer. As consumers/wearers, we might fully understand – even aspire to – the cultural connotations of a particular pair of shoes, yet this does not mean we will feel socially comfortable wearing them. Using empirical data gathered from wearers of the culturally significant Clarks Originals brand, this article reveals the co-constitutive relationship between the social identity of the wearer and that of the shoe. By focusing on the materiality of objects, bodies and environments we can overcome subject-object dualisms and really ‘see’ shoes in terms of the role they and their meanings play in a process of identification, transformation and cultural embodiment.

A Week in Mary Beard’s Shoes

Mary Beard

Response to: ‘Oh Mary Beard, why did you stoop to writing about shoes?’ (Beverley Turner, The Telegraph, 9th May 2013)

Originally posted: 16.05.2013 on the ‘If the shoe Fits project blog

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

Here’s Looking at Shoes: Conference Paper for the 4th International Conference on the Image

In October I presented my research on Clarks Originals shoes to other academics and practitioners with an interest in the ‘image’ at the Fourth International Conference on the Image in Chicago.

The paper is based on data gathered during recent focus groups with male and female Clarks Originals wearers in Sheffield along with interviews with the Clarks Originals team at their headquarters in Somerset. It reflects the relationship between popular representations and embodied experiences of wearing the classic styles.

‘Here’s Looking at Shoes’ conference paper

‘Here’s Looking at Shoes’ Exploring the relationship between popular representations and embodied experiences of shoes.

According to Benstock and Ferris (2001: 67) “Shoes are hot”: from calendars, magazines, coffee-table books, postcards, fridge magnets and book covers to visual references in film, television and the popular press, shoes are everywhere. But how do these representations affect everyday embodied experiences of wearing shoes, and to what extent are these representations informed by these experiences? This paper takes a sociological and anthropological approach that departs from traditional semiotic interpretations of images to give an empirically grounded insight into the co-constitutive relationship between representations and embodied experiences of this ubiquitous item of material culture. Following several months of interviews and observations at Clarks UK headquarters, the Originals Desert Boot, steeped in a rich history within visual culture, has emerged as a case study through which to understand this relationship. The Desert Boot – despite its perhaps distinctly un-remarkable appearance – carries an extremely rich set of meanings and associations for both men and women across a broad range of age groups and cultures. This paper shows how these meanings are carefully negotiated and facilitated through the process of representation in a subtle and complex dialogue between consumer and producer. Ultimately, this research provides a new bridge between structure and agency by showing how these representations are embodied by the Clarks Originals team themselves, affecting not only their perceptions of the footwear they produce but also their own shoe-wearing experiences.

 

Do you wear Clarks Originals? – Call for focus group participants in South Yorkshire

Recruitment Advert

The ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield is now approaching its end, however there is still time to participate in the research. As the postgraduate researcher on the project I will be continuing my research for another year to look at the relationships between representations of shoes, identity and experience. Following a period of research at Clarks headquarters in Street, Somerset, I am focusing on Clarks Originals, a sub-brand of Clarks International. If you or someone you know wears Clarks Originals then I would like to hear from you.

The shoes in question range from the classic Desert BootWallabeeDesert TrekLugger and Natalie to the women’s ranges and more recent fashion styles. Focus groups will be conducted in Sheffield in July/August, so whether you’re male or female; have one pair or a hundred pairs, please get in touch to express your interest in participating: a.sherlock@sheffield.ac.uk

This research has been approved by the University of Sheffield ethics committee. There will be no payment for participating, although refreshments will be served and we hope you will enjoy the experience. The focus groups will be video recorded for analysis and although the research is not intended for commercial use, anonymised recordings will be shown to Clarks to gauge their reactions to consumer experiences of their shoes. We will ask you to fill in a brief questionnaire before participating in the study. For more information about the project visit the project website. For more information about me, visit my department profile page or click the ‘About Alex’ page above.

“Everybody haffi ask weh mi get mi Clarks”: Clarks Originals and cross-cultural appropriation

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Paper delivered at The World at Your Feet Footwear Conference, University of Northampton, 20th-21st March 2013

Last month I presented a paper at the ‘World at Your Feet’ international footwear conference organised by Northampton University in conjunction with the Northampton Footwear Museum. The paper was the product of a collaboration with one of my participants at Clarks headquarters in Street – Tim Crumplin the archivist at the Alfred Gillett Trust (aka Clarks archive). Taking Arjun Appadurai’s biographical model the paper traces the biography of the well known classic Originals designs such as the Desert Boot and the Wallabee. Sparked by the recently published Clarks in Jamaica and a Newsnight feature on the BBC, it analyses the phenomenon of their popularity in Jamaica and the recent publicity this popularity has incited. To read the paper click below. To read the BBC coverage of the event click here.

Conference Paper PDF

Abstract:

Following the release of Jamaican deejay Vybz Kartel’s song ‘Clarks’ in 2010, Clarks Originals have hit the headlines with an unlikely tale of a ‘quintessentially British brand’ turned Caribbean sub-cultural style essential. The recent publication of a book about the history of Clarks Originals in Jamaica  along with a Newsnight feature and countless other articles offer a fascinating account of how the ‘Clarks booty’ has been taken up as an iconic item of Jamaican sub-cultural style. Despite all this publicity the question remains: why has this happened? Looking at both the affordances the design offers this unlikely market and the social circumstances of its migration the paper will start by applying sociological and anthropological theory concerning the cross-cultural appropriation of material culture to understand what is so special about the Desert Boot. The paper will proceed by drawing on data gathered during interviews with the Clarks Originals team to investigate what this particular case study can contribute to theories of perception and structure-agency debates: what can the Jamaican interpretation of Clarks Originals tell us about the dialogue that exists between the producer and consumer and the social life of the shoe. Moreover, why has this unusual appropriation excited such public interest in the UK.