Footprints from History
Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil find shoes a fascinating key to social mores, and discuss what choice and design of footwear can tell us about morality, mobility and sexuality in Europe over the centuries.
Shoes, like other objects, can illuminate specific aspects of the past. Through their survival, and material appearance – their texture, weight and design, they can convey abstract historical concepts, and also by their human associations and suggestions of physicality. For example, consider the images of the piles of shoes belonging to the millions of Jews killed in concentration camps. How powerfully the humble mismatched shoes stand for the presence of persons whose dignity and humanity have been erased. But a shoe produced and worn at a specific time also embodies the values, ideals and aesthetic choices of an era. Shoes can tell us a lot about an individual, but they also convey messages that are understood across society: high heels stand for an exaggerated femininity; red shoes for pleasure and desire; and sneakers for modern pace in the city, leisure and relaxation. The story of shoes in the longue durée is characterized by themes of morality, mobility and extremism as we shall see.
The shape, colours and design of footwear has always been influenced by the difference between the genders, and in turn the desires, ambitions and sensual signals of men and women. Even if the foot is the least gendered part of the body, men’s shoes are still immediately recognizable from women’s. This is not because of functional dissimilarities or anatomical diversities between the sexes, but because shoes are one way by which we construct gender identity. Shoes can tell us a lot about the place of a man or a woman within society and the physical space that they inhabit. But as the roles of the two sexes have changed over time, so have shoes and their use in highlighting distinctions and divisions in society.