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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. 


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