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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.

 

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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.

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.