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.
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.
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.
‘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.
In September 2010 I delivered a paper at the Interdisciplinary.net 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 Interdisciplinary.net 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.