Boots Were Made for Talking, About Who We Are

Bloomberg View , July 09, 2012

If you have been reading newspapers or websites, listening to the radio or watching TV over the past few weeks, you have probably heard the news: “You CAN judge a person by his shoes.” Beginning in mid-June, word of a psychology article titled “Shoes as a source of first impressions” began circling the globe.

Describing an experiment by researchers from the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, many reports declared that shoes alone reveal just everything about the wearer’s personality. “Overly aggressive people wear ankle boots,” proclaimed a Los Angeles National Public Radio host.

What psychologist Omri Gillath and his team actually found was more modest. Without the cues of facial expressions and context, college students could guess basic demographic characteristics from looking at photos of other college students’ footwear: gender, age and income. They could also detect the personality trait known as agreeableness, as well as something called attachment anxiety, which is connected to fear of rejection and was correlated with dull-colored shoes. That was all: not political affiliation, not how extroverted the wearers were, not whether they were overly aggressive.

The study made a solid contribution to research on first impressions, but it was hardly earthshaking. By getting so much attention, however, it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes. Even those who dismissed the research as silly often felt compelled to call radio stations or comment on websites, providing details about their own choices. Why this fascination with footwear?

Stylish Mobility

Like cars, shoes combine function and aesthetics, the promise of mobility and the pleasures of style. As apparel, they offer not only protection but transformation; as autonomous objects, they serve as “bursts of beauty that defy the mundane,” writes Rachelle Bergstein in “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us.” Unlike cars, shoes are also inexpensive enough to permit people to build diverse wardrobes, changing footwear with season, circumstances and mood.

Whether Jimmy Choos, Pumas or Toms, shoes let us stand out as individuals while fitting into similarly shod social groups. The complex relationship between the social and the personal is why it’s so hard to tell much about a shoe’s owner from a photograph alone -- and why shoes are so interesting. Their meanings require, and sometimes reveal, broader cultural context. Bergstein tells the story of a Texas high school that in 1993 punished students for wearing Doc Martens, falsely assuming that the boots signaled white racism when in fact they merely reflected students’ musical taste. A shoe, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, “is an accessory that can carry a lot of cultural meaning.”

Shoes have, for instance, long defined the border between luxury and necessity. Too many or too expensive, and they invite condemnation as an indulgence; too few, or the wrong kind, and they symbolize poverty and shame. Think of Imelda Marcos -- or the current divorce dispute between hedge-fund honcho Daniel Shak and his poker-playing ex-wife Beth Shak over her 1,200 pairs of designer shoes -- versus “barefoot and pregnant.” Tracing the shifts in footwear norms reveals patterns in economic development, class structure, manufacturing technology, sex roles, even international relations.

“Custom,” wrote Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” “has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person of either sex would be ashamed to appear in public without them. In Scotland, custom has rendered them a necessary of life to the lowest order of men; but not to the same order of women, who may, without any discredit, walk about barefooted. In France they are necessaries neither to men nor to women, the lowest rank of both sexes appearing there publicly, without any discredit, sometimes in wooden shoes, and sometimes barefooted.”

Shoe Signals

Up until about 1860, American women generally wore delicate slippers, even outdoors on the frontier, in an egalitarian but impractical imitation of French aristocrats. The French were American allies, while the British, who wore sturdier footwear, were not.

Our contemporary footwear fascination may date to Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon commercials for Nike Inc.’s Air Jordans in the late 1980s. (“It’s gotta be the shoes.”) But it has intensified in recent years. In the lyrics to last year’s hipster anthem “Pumped Up Kicks,” status-symbol shoes inspire an alienated teenager’s fantasies of shooting down his classmates. A 2007 episode of HBO’s “Entourage” revolved around a character’s quest for limited-edition sneakers. The USA Network’s spy show “Covert Affairs,” which starts its third season this week, prominently features its protagonist’s Christian Louboutin pumps.

In a content analysis of 48 hours on Britain’s Channel 4, Alexandra Sherlock, a sociologist at the University of Sheffield, found 170 references to shoes. They showed up in everything from yogurt commercials to the movie “Get Rich or Die Tryin”’ -- often without the audience even noticing them. Movies often use shoes to signal a character’s true identity. This pop-culture trope, Sherlock suggested in an e-mail, may explain why people assume shoes by themselves can reveal more about personality than they actually do.

One reason for shoes’ current cultural prominence is the sheer number of pairs people own today. Americans bought seven pairs per person last year, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. That’s down from a peak of slightly more than eight pairs in 2006 but still high by historical standards.

Shoes Galore

Sherlock’s University of Sheffield colleague Jenny Hockey, who heads a project on footwear and identity, notes that “when we were shown round people’s current shoe ‘wardrobes’ many of them were surprised to find how very many pairs they had -- 10 or 20, sometimes more.” I got similar results with an informal blog and Facebook poll asking people to estimate how many shoes they have and then tally the actual number. “Thought I had 12,” wrote one respondent. “I have...22. There goes my concept of myself as someone who really doesn’t care about shoes.” (The average American owns 11 pairs, according to a 2009 Kelton Research survey, though most respondents probably guessed without counting.) This abundance reflects a long-term increase in living standards that often goes unnoticed; such inventories, whether of shoes, clothes or other reusable goods, have reduced the hardship of the current recession, particularly compared with the Great Depression.

Today’s usual hardship isn’t going without shoes, or putting cardboard in the ones you have to make them last. It’s longing for shoes you’ll rarely wear or can’t afford. Thanks to Internet shopping, you don’t even have to leave home, or live in a big city, to face temptation.

The Internet also fosters communities of shoe geeks. The sneaker site SoleCollector claims more than 315,000 forum members. Commenting on Manolo’s Shoe Blog, a respected conservative journalist can, without fear of ridicule, admit to owning 200 pairs of shoes.

Sherlock suggests that “Sex and the City” had a similar effect, making it safe for previously reticent women to acknowledge their interest in shoes. “I do not believe that the series has ‘told’ people to love shoes,” she cautions. “Rather, it has appealed to viewers’ own personal experiences.”

Her distinction between media manipulation and personal meaning hints at the bigger issues at stake in all this talk about shoes: How do we understand life in a commercial, consumer-oriented society? Academic traditionalists and hard-headed advocates of “practical” research often dismiss scholarship on material culture, including shoes, as frivolous nonsense. So they leave thinking about questions like why people buy shoes and what they mean in people’s lives to Marxists, Freudians and others who decry commercial culture, treat consumers as powerless dupes or, at best, reduce every “unnecessary” purchase to some form of status competition.

The result is a desiccated understanding of history and culture. In an academic article, Sherlock decries “the postmodern tendency to fetishise the shoe, both in the Marxian (commodity fetish) and Freudian (psycho-sexual) sense, for what it ‘stands’ for rather than what it is.” Even when they contain an element of truth, such theories are as simplistic and misleading as the claim that ankle boots indicate an overly aggressive personality. Commercial culture -- our culture -- deserves better.