Category Archives: Reviews

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 Opting for a stock, and arguably outdated feminist response, she fails to ask the question: what is it about shoes that enables intelligent women to look past their negative stereotypes and confidently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

‘Boots were made for talking, about who we are’ review of Virginia Postrel’s article for Bloomberg View

In April this year a group of American social psychologists published a study entitled Shoes as a Source of First ImpressionsThe 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.

Putting shoes on show

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.

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

Review: ‘Shoes’ the Musical

Sadler’s Wells at the Peacock Theatre

8th February – 3rd April, 2011

After a short stint in the West End during the latter part of 2010, the Sadler’s Wells production of Shoes, the musical, has returned to the Peacock Theatre until April this year. Coincidentally the show made it’s original debut at the same time as we embarked upon our three year research project, and the current extended run at the Peacock Theatre in conjunction with a regularly packed auditorium provides further acknowledgement that footwear holds a special place in the imagination of the general public.

Writer and director Richard Thomas, perhaps best known for his controversial production of Jerry Springer: the Opera (written with comedian Stewart Lee), started research for the show by wandering the streets with a flip-cam, recording people’s shoe memories. The stories convinced him that a subject so rich, evocative and universal would guarantee West End success: “Everybody, everywhere has to choose a shoe. There is no escape.”

The fact that much of the inspiration for the show came from actual experience is both reassuring and provides and element of integrity, however it is clear that the stories that did make it as far as the final production did so on the merit of their sensational and entertaining themes. The theatre claims the production to be a celebration of “one of the greatest passions of the modern age”, and aims to enable everyone to relate to it in their own way. While I doubt the show will appeal to everyone’s experiences of shoes, some interesting themes do emerge and I will take this opportunity to raise some of these issues.

The show begins with a video projection, only a few minutes in length, representing the history of shoes – all of which are disembodied and appear to dance with a life of their own. This introduction culminates with a revolutionary declaration that announces the beginning of the twentieth century: “it’s your choice, now anything goes”. While the popular assumption that twentieth century consumer culture provided a wealth of freedom and choice is a contentious issue that deserves independent discussion, it is the disembodied shoes in this introduction that are of particular interest. The shoe dancing on its own appears with frequency throughout the show in many different guises. Strangely, for a production that has chosen dance as it’s medium it rarely focuses on the way the shoe makes one move or perform, opting instead to dance about shoes rather than to use shoes to dance. The few exceptions show themselves in surreal interludes, during which a spotlighted dancer proceeds to move from one side of the stage to the other in a manner seemingly dictated by the shoe. Cowboy boots, flippers, waders, skis and clown shoes provide often hilarious movements with which I felt I could identify and almost experience through the dancer. The frequent appearance of the disembodied shoe, however, dancing on its own, seems to reflect a modern tendency to objectify the shoe, seeing it as a representation or symbol as opposed to something that allows us to physically interact with the world in a particular way.

The disembodied shoe does however reflect another common theme – that of the fairy tale, magic and enchantment. The Hans Christian Anderson story the Red Shoes seemed to hold a contemporary relevance while watching a young man dressed in a red Adidas tracksuit don a pair of trainers by the same brand which appear to imbue him with the capacity to perform an amazing break-dance routine. Continually it seems that the shoes lead him, rather than vice versa, and his addiction and inability to part with the shoes mirrors the original fairy tale. The allusion to the almost magical potential of footwear to transform the wearer appears continually throughout the production, however dis-enchantment is also acknowledged in a postscript to the Cinderella story in which an unhappy and heavily pregnant young lady with equally unhappy partner comically warn against the dangers of being “seduced by a crystal slipper”.

The enchanted shoe leads to notions of the shoe as an object of worship. This is perfectly epitomised when a chorus of nuns religiously chant names such as Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik and Vivienne Westwood. An amusing sketch in which a Birkenstock-wearing Christ character herds a flock of Australian sheepskin Uggboots continues the religious metaphor. Another performance, situated in the shoe shop, features several female dancers celebrating the religious ritual that is shoe shopping. Their “temple of retail” referring to Emile Zola’s “cathedral of consumption” – the early department store – suggests a wealth of comparisons between consumer culture and religion. The presence of the single suited male at the periphery of the stage appears to symbolise the contrasting rational voice of reason when he asks, why not buy a cheaper pair that look the same?

The stories can be seen to acknowledge heterosexual, homosexual and indeed asexual experiences of shoes – many of the dancers are dressed androgynously with the emphasis very much on the shoe. However there does seem to be a bias in which most of the stories seem to be aimed around female experience. Many of the stories appear to perpetuate stereotypical views and the men that actually feature in the storylines, for example Imelda Marcos’ bodyguards and the aforementioned ‘husband’ in the shoe shop, tend to perpetuate the notion that men exhibit rational behaviour and women, irrational – a highly problematic assumption.

Despite very mixed press reviews, there is no doubt that Shoes has reignited debates around a highly charged element of modern mass consumer culture. The show itself is light-hearted and sensational in nature and has certainly fallen short of the promised insight into the fascination with footwear. The popularity of the show with both men and women, however, seems to suggest that many are eager to explore this fascination – opening the way for many other, perhaps more insightful, types of exploration.