Let’s talk about shoes. Everybody has them; most people wear them. They are a staple of everyday life, unworthy of thought besides their implications for an outfit. That is to say, most of the time we don’t really think about them. But shoes carry much heavier connotations than just outfit potential, and it can be interesting to consider them in a more critical light. In this article, I will provide a brief introduction to the societal histories and implications of shoes.
Let’s start with the obvious: shoes are helpful for mobility. Since we began to wear shoes around 40,000 years ago, completing daily activities has become quite difficult without them. As a species, our feet have evolved along with the invention of shoes: our toe bones became smaller, our toes closened to each other, our calf muscles shrunk, and the skin on the bottoms of our feet became softer and less calloused. Our dependency on shoes led to the invention of more specialized shoes for specific utilities: running shoes, work boots, and hiking shoes. Not only this, but shoes can now serve as a fashion accessory. We have high heels, loafers, and sandals … Shoes can even be customized to fit the wearer’s personality, and a person’s footwear is an often distinctive and stylistic preference. This idea brings me to my next topic: class.
Since shoes are the first mechanism of physical mobility, they have become, by extension, indicators of class and status. These status indications are often referenced in pop culture, specifically in rap. For example, rapper Cardi B refers to Louboutins in her hit song “Bodak Yellow” as “bloody shoes” and sings the line, “I like those Balenciagas, the ones that look like socks” in her song, “I like it.” Similarly, Future raps, “It’s cool, man, got red bottoms on / Life is good, you know what I mean?” in a verse on his song, “Life is good.” In the context of rap, references to designer footwear in these songs imply that the rapper (in this case, Cardi B and Future) is wealthy enough to afford such luxuries. Given that rap music is rooted in a reaction against the classist nature of disco and funk in the 70s, rappers singing about luxury footwear also implies upward social mobilization; in other words, they made it.
Furthermore, designer brands often focus on footwear as staples of their brand and vehicles for experimental design. Recently, designer brands have claimed traditionally working-style shoe silhouettes — such as the sneaker and the combat boot. Brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton often embellish them with their logos, classic prints, and other touches, clearly making these shoes into objects of high fashion rather than footwear serving their traditional purpose. In contrast, however, these same brands also deconstruct these working-style shoes, oftentimes scuffing them and making them appear worn out. These two seemingly opposing design choices both ultimately serve as indicators of class for those wearing their products: on one hand, the over-the-top embellished Gucci combat boots clearly cannot be worn in a combat setting. On the other hand, the worn-out Golden Goose sneakers have enough brand recognition to serve as a status symbol, proving that the seeming scuff is a design choice, not a symptom of real work being performed in the shoe.
Shoes have served as a symbol of romance and eroticism in many cultures. A common wedding game is “The Shoe Game.” In the context of divorce, Bedouins often use the phrase, “She is my slipper, I have cast her off.” In China, it is a traditional practice to offer a shoe to the goddess of fertility when attempting to conceive a child. All of these traditions conflate matrimony, fertility, and phallic imagery with shoes. In modern-day sex culture, shoes and feet have become fetishized. Shoes are the first thing to come off in the bedroom, and feet are a common fetishization, especially among men.
As explained in Tannenbaun’s “Bad Shoes & The Women Who Love Them,” Freud addresses these conflations in a long-winded, way-too-specific, extremely Freudian description of a boy observing his mother’s genitalia for the first time. As he discovers that she lacks a penis, her shoes take its place and become a woman’s phallic representation. While this theory is somewhat absurd, the take-away message of his theory can be applied to contemporary eroticism around shoes: a woman’s shoes are often symbolic of genitalia, both of the woman herself and the observing man. An example of this would be high heels, which are discussed in my last topic: gender and shoes.
There is no mistaking that shoes are intended to be gendered in culture. Fashionable shoes geared towards women are usually some combination of sleek, small, pointy, and heeled. In fact, there are long-standing Western and Eastern cultural norms implying that women with smaller feet are more feminine and desirable: footbinding was a common practice for young girls in China, and Cinderella is one of Disney’s most classic fairytale adaptations. In contrast, men are praised for having big feet because they are portrayed as an indication of height and larger endowments.
With a gendered lens, high heels are an interesting shoe silhouette to contemplate. In line with Freud’s theory of a woman’s shoes being reminiscent of genitalia, heels are both vulvic and phallic in nature. The heel itself can be interpreted phallically, but a woman in heels is considered sexy and feminine. The sex appeal of high heels can also be attributed to the mobile restriction they cause to women, which serves as a reminder of male societal power: a woman in heels, when she is considered at her most feminine, is unable to move to the best of her ability and is ultimately hindered by her footwear.
However, heels can also make a woman feel powerful. While this feeling can be attributed to the ingrained male-dominated societal implications of heels mentioned above, high heels also do make a woman appear taller. With height comes a feeling of power. Now, many shoes marketed for women are of a masculine shape but with added height to the sole, such as platform sneakers and boots. These silhouettes enable the feelings of power evinced by heels without the restriction they entail, maybe indicating a societal deviation from male-dominated footwear ideals.
So, next time you’re considering buying a new pair of Jordans or Sambas or Louboutins (if that’s your thing), maybe take a moment to ponder and appreciate 1) all of the societal lenses through which you are unconsciously making your purchase decision, and 2) how your shoes are a reflection of you, your class, and your gender performance. I hope this article is somewhat enlightening in your future footwear endeavors.