Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Shoes, Class and Money

Laurie says:

I’m not a fan of high heels and haven’t worn them in years. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t noticed the explosion of high fashion shoes over the last number of years, or the magic associated with shoe designers and shoes that used to be only associated with high fashion and couturiers. And I know that, as with all fashion, there is a complicated language that includes class, sex, culture and money.

I do know that high heels had started in the French courts as men’s shoes. (Quotes are from Lisa Wade in Sociological Images.)

…Men were the first sex to don the shoe. They were adopted by the European aristocracy of the 1600s as a signal of status.  The logic was: only someone who didn’t have to work could possibly go around in such impractical footwear.  (Interestingly, this was the same logic that encouraged footbinding in China.)

…Women started wearing heels as a way of trying to appropriate masculine power.

…The lower classes also began to wear high heels, as fashions typically filter down from elite.

…How did the elite respond to imitation from “lesser” people: women and workers?  First, the heels worn by the elite became increasingly high in order to maintain upper class distinction.  And, second, heels were differentiated into two types: fat and skinny. Fat heels were for men, skinny for women.

And continuing in the present. (Quotes from Sociological Images again.)
..


…The higher the heel, the more impractical the shoe.  Eventually the working classes couldn’t keep up with the escalation because they had to, you know, work.  Sociologically, this is an example of what Pierre Bourdieu famously called “distinction.”  The rich work to preserve certain cultural arenas and products for themselves.  This allows them to signify their status; you know, keep them from getting confused with the masses. I think something similar is going on today among women. Certain class advantages make it easier for upper middle class and wealthy women to don high heels.  High heels can really only be worn routinely by women who don’t work on their feet all day. (I’ll grant there are dedicated exceptions).

…Having money, in itself, means that nothing stands between you and buying things that are impractical. So, high heels function to differentiate women who can afford to be impractical with their footwear — both monetarily and in practice — from women who can’t. This, I think, is why the highest, spikiest heels are are the front of the shoe store.  In a certain way, they signify status.  Wearing those shoes promises to differentiate you from other “lesser” women, women who can’t invest in their appearance and get lots of practice looking elegant on their tip toes.  Women of all classes desire such shoes because of the signals they send and they often buy them aspirationally, hoping to be the type of woman who wears them.

..The rich have the power to control the discourse and can always access the high-status objects.  The poor can copy, but they are often playing catch up because the rich are always changing the rules.  So, as soon as the poor are doing it right, the rules change, otherwise the activity doesn’t function to distinguish the rich from the poor.  And so on.

And then there are all the more complicated nuances of the language of high heels. I know I don’t understand it but the above and below examples make for interesting speculation.  What I do understand, from long ago, is how good your aching feet feel when you take them off.

One Response to “Shoes, Class and Money”

  1. Lynne Murray Says:

    Orion Cooper on Facebook pointed out this article on the history of high heels as riding footwear for soldiers in the near east. The heel anchors the foot in the stirrup so the rider can stand up in the stirrups with better control and freedom to use both arms. Of course, cowboy boots immediately came to mind.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21151350

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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