Boots Were Made For Talking, About Who We Are

Bigstock-Shoes-Shop-31017755Thanks to everybody who answered my shoe survey. It played a small role in my latest Bloomberg View column.

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?

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.”

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

[Shoes shop illustration courtesy of BigStock.]

Justified Lust

Olyphant1Many women (including my wife) enthusiastically agree that actor Timothy Olyphant is incredibly hot. As Marshall Raylan Givens in FX channel’s Justified, he is as dangerous as a heart-throb as he is with a gun.

When portraying Marshall Givens in dangerous situations, Olyphant uses his eyes and sly smile to convey the feeling that Givens is coolly sizing up the opposition. Marshall Givens usually seems less prone to rage than the sheriff Olyphant played in Deadwood. Nonetheless, Olyphant makes us feel that Marshall Givens will kill without a moments hesitation, if justified. And since Justified is set in a contemporary rural Kentucky environment filled with dangerous criminals, guns, and drugs, Givens’s expertise with a handgun does frequently come into play.

Olyphant2A number of things seems to make Olyphant particularly attractive to women. He is tall and lean-muscled, with a body like a fashion model. He is boyishly handsome, with a lush head of hair. As Marshall Givens, Olyphant’s intense, dark-eyes sometimes narrow into threatening slits as he looks out from under his cowboy hat. But a sideways glance from those dark eyes, combined with a sly smile, seems to make many of his female fans go weak in the knees.

Olyphant has been talked about as one of the new male actors who have a notable flair with style. GQ magazine recently named his Raylan Givens character as the most stylish man on TV (their site has a great photo of Olyphant in costume). In a December 2011 GQ article Sarah Goldstein wrote that even some men have crushes on Marshall Givens. And Olyphant himself admits that he enjoys playing a badass character like Raylan.

The Glamour Of Beautiful Servers

Bluehour-Dining-Room While dining last night at the Bluehour (shown to the left), one of the most fashionable contemporary restaurants in Portland’s Pearl District, my wife Carol commented that part of the expense of dining there was paying to have beautiful servers. Once she mentioned this, I realized that the serving staff was indeed remarkably attractive.

The stylish young hostess who seated us had long, curly blonde hair and wore a little red dress that, while undeniably sexy, was too fashionable to look cheap. The host (floor manager?) was young, tall, handsome, and wore a beautifully tailored black suit.

The other servers were all dressed in white. Carol thought that the young woman who filled our water glasses was more beautiful than Alicja Bachleda, the striking actress in Ondine, a film we had recently seen. This young woman had the tall, thin figure of a runway model, and, like runway models, she and the tall, handsome male servers maintained neutral expressions as they fulfilled their duties. 

Their task, I realized, was not to engage with us. Instead, their role was to slip in like attractive, lithe-limbed apparitions and magically do whatever was needed to maintain the glamour of our dining experience. As when, for example, the knife I had used to spread butter was, at the proper moment, whisked away with effortless grace and replaced with a new one. 

Our waiter was also dressed in white, and was tall, trim, older, and slightly balding. He seemed to love his work. He had a highly engaging smile, and a manner so relaxed that you immediately felt at ease. This made it easy to ask questions about the more exotic ingredients in various entrées. 

The food was remarkably good and inventive, but the impression that I was most left with was now effortless the whole remarkable dining experience had been made to seem. Castiglione’s term sprezzatura came to mind because the staff appeared to handle everything with effortless grace, thus concealing the training and experience that had made this possible.

That maintaining this sense of effortlessness is difficult was made apparent the following evening. While dining in another fine restaurant the floor manager called attention to herself by wearing an ill-fitting suit made out of cheap material. A small mistake compared to the great food, but it led us to wonder if there would be other small mistakes. And once we had switched to that frame of mind, naturally enough, we did notice a few other flaws. 

Ditching A Younger Sibling

Sistersplus As I was headed to a going-out-of-business sale at the Border’s Bookstore in Santa Fe, I saw something that probably happens millions of times a day around the world. An older sibling was trying hard not to appear connected to a younger. In the photo shown at left, two sisters are distancing themselves from their parents and younger brother behind them. And, sadly, at some point in her teen years, the older sister will protest if told she needs to let her sister tag along.

In Santa Fe I saw a nattily dressed boy of about seventeen purposely walking very fast, forcing his younger sister to periodically have to run or skip to catch up. He was trim, attractive, and had impeccably styled hair. He was wearing a nice sport coat with a well-matched shirt and tie, nice trousers, and well-polished dress shoes. He perhaps looked a bit preppy for the bookstore, but there was no question he looked  confident and sharp.

His younger sister was about thirteen or fourteen, and I could see why he was trying to ditch her. She was pudgy, her hair was a mess, and her unattractive pink dress fit horribly. She had put on a long-sleeved t-shirt under the dress for warmth, and this make her outfit look even worse.

While he looked sophisticated, she looked clueless. Once in the bookstore, they separated, and I never saw him go anywhere near her the whole time I was there.

I told this story at a dinner gathering the other night, and many people starting talking about their relationships with their siblings. One woman’s younger brother (by two years) used to like to hang out with her girl friends when they came over, and she was not happy that her friends found him so funny that they liked having him around. Although she had a good relationship with him, she reached her limit when he tried to join them at their lunch table at high school. After all, she laughingly recalled , “I was a senior!”

No matter how close we might usually be to our siblings, there are times when they can interfere with the image we are trying to project, especially in the strange peer-pressure world of junior high and high school.

[Photo "Hey, Alice, I've been thinking: we're old enough to go out on our own now, without Mom and Dad and our younger brother tagging along and slowing us down" by Ed Yourdon. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]

Choosing Representatives For Cosmetics

Taylor-swift-covergirl A small battle takes place each day at the dental office where I get my teeth cleaned. One dentist likes rock music, and if he gets there first, the radio is set to a oldies rock station for the day. If the other dentist gets there first, she sets the radio to a country-western station. 

Last week, hearing the music, I assumed that she had gotten there first, but it turned out that on that day she had rebelled against the system. The radio had been on the rock station for several days, and deciding she could not take hearing Cher one more day in a row, she had changed the channel.

Because music often serves as a cultural marker, I assume that cosmetics companies think carefully before choosing singers as representatives. CoverGirl has chosen country singer Taylor Swift (seen above) as one of their current faces, and it would be fascinating to know the demographic considerations that were discussed when they were considering her.

LadyGagaVivaGlam Viva Glam has chosen Lady Gaga as a current representative. In this advertising photo for them she looks far less made-up than she usually does in public appearances. Nonetheless, it reveals a different approach to makeup—reflecting the more over-the-top notion of glamour that Lady Gaga favors. She already serves, for example, as do Cher and Madonna, as a favorite singer for drag queens to impersonate.

Carrie Underwood, another country singer, has a contract with Olay cosmetics, and she seems an apt choice to appeal to a demographic of slightly more mature women than would Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. It must be fascinating to hear the frank pros and cons that are brought up when cosmetic companies are discussing decisions about product representation. Appealing to their target customers is no doubt big business in terms of sales.

Experiencing Glamour

Charlize-theron-glamour As a word glamour is tricky to define. Whether any of us experience something as being glamorous depends on our individual responses. I find Charlize Theron’s hair and makeup wonderfully glamorous in the photo at left, while others may not. I feel certain that the intent was to create a glamorous photograph, but intending something to be perceived as glamorous does not insure we will all respond to it in that way.

Charlize-theron-blue-dior In dressing for the Oscars, Theron has made some choices that bombed with most fashion critics. Most people felt that the Christian Dior dress that she wore to the 2010 Oscars looked regrettable on her, and it made many worst-dress lists. The Christian Dior dress (shown at right) that she wore to the 2005 Oscars was panned by some as suitable for a high-school prom, but most loved it, and it has appeared on several lists as one the best Oscar dresses of the decade. When you see a large photograph of her making her entrance onstage in this dress, you can almost imagine that it was chosen knowing what the stage colors and design were going to be. The effect of the dress in relationship to that stage design is stunning.

In a situation when something strikes us as stunningly glamorous, the archaic meaning of glamour as magic or enchantment still seems relevant. What we experience seems to cast a spell on us, and what we perceive seems like an enchantment. Even while under the spell, we may sense that what we are experiencing is in part a transient, artful conjuration, and that everything possible has been done to try to make us feel we are experiencing glamour at its epitome, fully incarnated.

Small wonder this is so difficult to pull off—the slightest incongruity can break the spell of glamour. Oh, but what a delightful experience to have when the enchantment works as planned.

Fashionable Hair: Inspired By...?

LewisPhillipsfamilySomeday someone may see a picture of you and likely smile or laugh when they realize that you were wearing your hair in the fashion of the age, most likely inspired by your favorite actor or singer. I offer as evidence this picture of my maternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother and their children. All of the women are wearing the 1920s-fashionable Marcel wave. With the string of pearls all of them probably felt as up-to-date as film star Mary Pickford, shown below with the same look (except that Mary smiles and dares to bare her shoulders). My grandfather, the only male offspring, has his hair slicked back in the fashion of Rudolph Valentino.

Mary-pickfordLooking at high-school and college yearbooks from a few decades gives us the perspective to see just how conformist we sometimes can be. My wife laughs when she sees that most of her friends were wearing the same hair style that she was. Many of the boys in my high school wore some version of Elvis Presley’s or James Dean’s hair, hoping somehow that their charisma would magically transfer to us.

Hamill Tina Fey has admitted having a girl crush on Dorothy Hamill (shown here receiving an Olympic skating medal). Fey got a Hamill-style haircut, plus wore a big Dorothy Hamill button. Hamill’s wedge cut flowed so beautifully when she skated that some commentators have lamented the lack of something similar at the last Winter Olympics.

How about DG readers? What actor, singer, or athlete had the glamorous hair that you and many classmates aspired to? For inspiration, here’s a site showing many 20th-century hairstyles, and another showing 10 of the most popular hairstyles.

Etsy Incongruity: Feminine Tattoos And A Vintage Dress

Perusing Etsy's vintage shops, I came upon this interesting juxtaposition. The tight-waisted, full-skirted '50s vintage dress is just as "alternative" as the model's tattoos, and the tattoos are as overtly feminine as the dress. The contemporary counterpart of the woman who first wore the dress is probably wearing jeggings and several carefully layered knit tops. For more photos (or to buy the dress), click here.

Tattoos woman in '50s vintage dress Etsy DecadesBaltimore

The Seduction Of Hair

Tangled-teaserposterhairevery-fullHair is having a major cultural moment. Disney’s Tangled, a retelling of “Rapunzel” that features what one blogger calls “ninja hair,” is a monster hit, while nine-year-old Willow Smith (daughter of Will and Jada) has become an instant star with her exuberant video “Whip My Hair.”

Meanwhile, in Paris, where they take both fashion and cinema far too seriously to produce celebrations of ninja-hair-whipping, the Cinématèque Française has mounted an exposition devoted to the portrayal of women’s hair in the movies. Titled “Brune-Blonde” (“Brunette-Blonde”), it runs through January 16, with an online version here. The poster features the naturally brunette Penelope Cruz as a platinum blonde, and the exhibit’s intellectual theme is Hollywood’s role in fostering a now-fading “blonde imperialism.”

There is something fascinating, seductive, and slightly unnerving about human hair. It’s a constant reminder of how little control we really exercise over the bodies that define us to other people. Lacking nerves and muscles, hair is simultaneously part of its owner and yet somehow not. A defining part of a person’s appearance, it takes conscious artifice to control. Contrary to the title, Rapunzel's long tresses in Tangled are never in knots. When they start to get in the way, an adorable trio of little girls fashions them into a flower-filled braid worthy of Botticelli.

In the era of the faux-disorderly “messy bun,” the phrase “not a hair out of place” now connotes too much control, Betty Draper-style. But, taken literally, getting your hair under control is still a glamorous ideal. All that’s changed is the definition of “in place.” As a friend once remarked, nobody in a movie love scene ever says, “Owww, you’re on my hair.” 

Quick Impressions

Emily-didonato Chances are the moment you saw this photograph you instantly had an opinion about it: whether you felt the model was beautiful, whether her red lipstick looked stunning or overdone. Studies have shown we form initial impressions surprisingly quickly. At Northwestern University researchers found that when they tested listeners by letting them hear tiny samples of music, the listeners were able to classify different styles of music based on samples lasting only 250 milliseconds. A half-second sample added only a little more accuracy, and with a sound sample lasting a second most listeners could classify every style of music they were familiar with. This is an astonishing finding, because it suggests that we use timbre, the character of the sound, to quickly do most of the work when we are identifying musical styles. 

This ability to form quick impressions is an extension of our survival skills, stemming from the need to assess sights and sounds that might indicate the presence of danger, or a friend, or an enemy. These quick impressions can of course be mistaken, but without the ability to form quick impressions our ancestors could not have survived. 

Those of you who have watched Project Runway or The Fashion Show know that you decide almost as soon as the model walks onto the runway whether you think her outfit is attractive. Later, you sometimes think the judges are crazy to like an outfit that you immediately found unattractive. If we watch an awards show in which music, film, and TV stars are trying to look glamorous, we take one look and quickly decide if we think they have succeeded or failed.

Emily-dinato2 The model in the photograph above is Emily DiDonato, a relatively new model who has been featured in several recent Maybelline ads. The photo at right shows her with little or no makeup. For a chance to form other quick impressions, look at DiDonato made up in strikingly different ways herehere, and here. If we were to imagine each image as our first impression of her, then our initial reaction to her might be quite different.

Understanding this allows us to see why some religions have been suspicious of makeup for centuries. When we see an image of Emily’s face, within milliseconds we have evaluated her appearance and formed an initial impression about her as a person. When her makeup changes she instantly appears to be different—perhaps even a different kind of person. This is horrifying if you believe that people should present only one face to the world. But, if you believe that we play different roles in life, and that we should have the option of presenting ourselves differently, then the ability to dramatically change our appearance in various ways seems liberating and fun.