Based on questionnaires, observations, and interviews in 1990 and 2000, it is clear that to most Americans, their footwear is an extension and expression of themselves. The study finds strong gender differences, with women being more alert to the symbolic implications of shoes than men. Shoes affect our perceptions of others and our perceptions of self, including our passage into adulthood. Among the magical transformations we attribute to shoes is their ability to supercharge our athletic performance. Not only is footwear an extension of self, it also acts as a repository of memory and meaning in our lives.
How lovely are thy feet with shoes, oh prince’s daughter (Song of Solomon 7:1)
Shoes are totems of Disembodied Lust. They are candy for the eyes, poetry for the feet, icing on your soul. They stand for everything you’ve ever wanted: glamour, success, a rapierlike wit, a date with the Sex God of your choice, Barbie’s wedding dress. Shoes hint that attaining those things is just as easy as slipping them on your feet. They seem to have the magic power to make you into someone else, someone without skin problems, someone without thin hair, someone without a horsy laugh. And they do (Pond 1985, p. 13).
An initial impression might well be that there is no more ordinary and unremarkable consumption object than shoes. For some of the people included in this U.S. study the impression is accurate-buying, wearing, caring for, and disposing of shoes is for them a necessity with which they concern themselves as little as possible. But far more commonly, shoes are seen as highly significant articles of clothing that are regarded as expressing the wearer’s personality and perhaps as even capable of magically transforming them into beautiful, handsome, happy, confident, or heroic people. Shoes are seen by most of those studied as revealing age, sex, and personality and as creating moods and capturing memories. For adolescents, shoes are a key signifier of their identities, and the shoes they desire often conflict what their parents regard as appropriate. Shoes appear as a key vehicle through which adolescents and young adults work out issues of identity, individualism, conformity, lifestyle, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and personality.
This paper draws on portions of two studies conducted in 1990 and 2000 in Salt Lake City, Utah. I began with a half dozen depth interviews and a small scale student survey involving ideas about footwear. I subsequently enlisted 96 university students (32 in 1990 and another 64 in 2000) to examine their wardrobes and write-up an autobiography of their shoes in a manner suggested by the work of Kopytoff (1986) and Lofgren (1990). Each student subsequently conducted semi-structured depth interviews with two non-students and prepared transcriptions. The students in the 2000 study also conducted and wrote-up observations of shoe buying behaviors. While the shoe autobiographies come from university students primarily in their early twenties, the interviews include a wider set of people ranging in age from 16 to 74. Just under 10 percent of the 288 interviews and autobiographies were from people born outside of the U.S., and they are excluded from the present analysis.