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.
In April this year a group of American social psychologists published a study entitled Shoes as a Source of First Impressions. The study, conducted by the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, aimed to prove that people can make accurate assumptions about other people’s personalities by simply looking at their shoes. Despite its flaws – most notably that all 271 participants (subjects and observers) were undergraduate psychology students, thereby vastly reducing the potential ambiguities associated with varying ages, ethnicities, political affiliations and economic backgrounds – the study has sparked the public imagination: taken up across the globe with headlines like ‘Why this boot means you may be depressed’ (The Sun, June 14th 2012).
Thankfully some of these claims have also been critiqued in the popular press. Virginia Postrel contacted and referenced the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ team in her article Boots are made for talking, about who we are for Bloomberg View and raised a far more interesting and insightful issue in relation to the publicity the study received:
“By getting so much attention […] it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes.”
She goes on to look at various social, cultural and historical factors that may have contributed to our current interpretations of, and fascination with shoes – suggesting that simplistic reductions of meaning undermine the rich and diverse uses and experiences of shoes in consumer culture today.
Indeed it seems that everyone does have an opinion on shoes which is why it is a joy to be working on an academic research project that transgresses academic boundaries and engages the public in such a profound way. Our data promise to show that while some people certainly do use shoes to identify others, this process is far from straightforward and certainly can’t be codified or generalised – no matter how attractive this prospect may be. Postrel’s responses to the ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project and my own PhD research suggests that an audience for our research is ready and waiting to be presented with some of the sociological realities and fascinating intricacies of people’s relationships with shoes, and with one another through shoes.
To read Postrel’s full article click here.
In December last year I helped curate an exhibition in the ICOSS building at the University of Sheffield which showcased the research that had been conducted to-date for the research project If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition. The exhibition was aimed at communicating the aims and objectives of the project, along with a sample of the data gathered so far, to a wider audience.
I later assisted Jenny Hockey in writing a review built on an exhibition toolkit written by Hazel Burke as part of the ‘Real Life Methods’ programme at the University of Manchester. Those planning on setting up an exhibition to disseminate data, or those interested in seeing some images of our exhibition may be interested to read the review (left).
I also produced a brief observational film of people’s shoes on Carnaby Street in London to accompany the exhibition. To view the film click here.
Members of the research team for the ESRC funded research project ‘If the Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition’ were interviewed and photographed by reporters from The Star, Sheffield’s daily newspaper. Click here to read the full article.
From left: Alexandra Sherlock (Postgraduate Researcher), Jenny Hockey (Principal Investigator), Rachel Dilley (Research Associate) – Photograph courtesy of Steven Parkin