Tag Archives: shoes

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.

BP Oil Spill, “Conspicuous Conservation,” and Brownie Points

Debbie says:

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the BP oil spill as a source of fashion photography, working from a post by Lisa at Sociological Images. Now, Lisa is back with a very different disturbing take on the greater subject.

a display of three different brown leather loafers, all "finished" to look as if they were oil-stained

These shoes are the Bed Stu “Cleanup Collection,” designed to look as though their wearers have been getting dirty on the shores of the Gulf Coast, presumably washing off waterbirds and turtles.

Bed Stu is a shoe company named to make us think of Bedford Stuyvesant (generally known as “BedStuy”), an extremely poor neighborhood of New York City. From their website (where I couldn’t find these shoes), they seem to make high-quality men’s and women’s shoes, not cheap but not priced in the skyrocket range either. 100% of profits from the “Cleanup Collection” will, they say, go to clean-up efforts in the Gulf.

As Lisa says:

This looks to me like an example of “conspicuous conservation.” The term was originally derived from the phrase “conspicuous consumption,” defined by Wikipedia as “lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth.” Conspicuous conservation, then, is the (often lavish) spending on “green” products designed mainly to advertise one’s environmentally-moral righteousness.

If you wear regular shoes and donate to the gulf spill clean up, your altruism is entirely invisible. But if you buy these hideous things, everyone gets to know what a nice guy you are.

I agree completely with Lisa about the conservation angle, and the conspicuousness, and I think it goes a little deeper. These shoes don’t only say “I gave money to the BP oil spill” (and how much did the wearer really “give” by purchasing a pair of shoes for the price he would pay anyway?). They also say, if not, “I personally worked to help clean up the BP oil spill,” at least, “I am willing to represent myself as having personally worked to clean up the BP oil spill.” They convey an ethic of personal involvement and actual labor. And they convey that ethic by a clothing choice: How do I want to look in the world? I want to look like a person who would go to the Gulf and get dirty.

I didn’t personally work to clean up the BP oil spill, or the devastation left by the Haitian earthquake, or for that matter, the results of any other natural or manmade disaster. Walking off the trail in the park to pick up litter is about my speed. And thus, I would be embarrassed to wear those shoes, because I don’t want to claim experience, or virtue, or even curiosity, that I don’t have. Since all clothing makes statements, when articles of clothing are politicized, wearing or not wearing them becomes a matter of integrity. The shoes feel to me a little bit like a Disneyland ride, not the roller-coaster kind but the ones that have a flavor of simulation in perfect safety: I took a trip on a jungle boat; I voyaged through the inside of the human bloodstream.

As a group, in the U.S. and first world middle class, most of us live very clean and comfortable, and fairly sedentary lives without much adventure and without much hard labor. And we crave the rewards and kudos we would get for adventure and hard labor without the actual heat and bugs, hard beds and dirty shoes. This has been true for many decades. In fact, significant numbers of people pay for expensive adventure vacations, with or without hard work: anything from inexperienced crewing on a sailing ship to being guided up Mount Everest. Clothing choices with the “adventurous” flavor is hardly new: Banana Republic clothing and contemporary cowboy hats are two examples.

But the Cleanup Collection shoes are the first thing I’ve personally seen that add the spice of “ethical person/volunteer/donated time and sweat” to the mix. Buying and wearing these shoes is using your clothing choices to take subtle credit for other people’s hard work and lived experience. At the same time, if the money actually goes to good work in the Gulf (something that always has to be examined), I’m sure the organizations whose volunteers have their feet in the oil are glad to cash the check.