Revealing Footnotes (the kind of history I love)

What do your shoes say about you? More than you think, says Caroline Knowles. They hint at your class, job, where you live and even how you spend your leisure time

Manolo Blahnik or Christian Louboutin? Most workers in higher education can afford neither make of shoe. But that’s the point. Shoes reveal tantalising information about how the social world works, so why do sociologists, anthropologists and historians show so little interest in them?

The idea of a single object shedding light on the wider world captured the public’s imagination in A History of the World in 100 Objects, the British Museum/BBC collaboration broadcast last year. Listeners enthusiastically offered their own objects to be analysed for their broader significance. There is a similar project to be done on our footwear and its social meaning.

Edward Tenner, US historian of technology and culture, explores how the tacit knowledge underlying everyday activities changes in different cultures. He devotes a whole section to shoes in his 2003 book Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology. They are, he says, far more than our contact with the world beneath our feet; they help govern our perceptions of it as well.

Shoes reveal social fabrics. They alert us to key areas of social significance and are an effective entry-point for biographical and geographical methods of social enquiry.

The world is divided into those who have shoes and those who don’t. According to Tenner, a billion people worldwide walk barefoot, so shoes reveal the social morphology of the world on a global scale. The shoeless live mostly in the global South. The potentially shoeless – that is, the homeless – of the (unevenly) affluent North wear recycled shoes. Photographer and writer Peter Coles’ beautiful photo-essay Paris Traces: Shoes explores the Parisian custom of leaving shoes that are no longer wanted neatly on the pavement as a form of recycling.

Read full story. This is the kind of history that I love, everyday objects which many of us don’t really think about, tell us so much about a culture, about a person, about a particular situation in life, and give us a peek into ‘everyday life’… true cultural history!