by Jamie Wilcenski
Over the current winter/spring semester my fellow interns and I have been hard at work at the La Crosse County Historical Society. We have been cataloging artifacts, deaccessioning artifacts, boxing artifacts up, and even moving some exhibits to make way for renovation work. As of late, we have been devoting our time and energies to the vast shoe collection that the society has. We have gone through, un-boxed shoes, found what documentation exists, using updated information cards as a tool to assess what we have, and lastly to make the ultimate decision, should it stay or should it go. We have named our intern research project 'History from the Ankle Down' and I thought a thought provoking blog post would fit right in.
Being a student of Sociology putting things into categories and looking at things from different perspectives comes naturally to me. I have been thinking on and off about the manifest and latent functions and purposes of shoes as I have gone through this process. The process of going through the entire shoe collection multiple times to accomplish our goals has left some concepts very active in my head. Now, even when I'm not working on shoes I cannot help but still think in terms of footwear. When I'm out in public I invariably find myself focused on what the people around me are wearing. Then I mutter to myself oh that's a Louis heel or oh I recall seeing something similar in the collection yesterday. The knowledge continues to assert itself in other places.
In similar respects shoes have a sort of a hold on us as a culture. Why do we buy shoes? They do so much more than just protect our feet from injury or the elements. They are stylish, sexy, attractive, they give us height, protect our back and other body areas, but they also do not so nice things too. They can be restrictive, gender limiting, hold us back, make us feel less whole, even change how we view other people. In the 15th century, what we would commonly call the Louis heel was a top notch fashion statement. They were made popular, not just for women but also for men by King Louis the XIV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour. But over time the socially acceptability of men's heels began to fade whereas the women's heel flourished.
Popular media would have you believe that the heel faded into a strictly female gender functioning shoe. But is that really true? I would argue that lifts in shoes serve the same general functions in men's shoes as do a lot of women's heels, the name has changed but the manifest goal has not. The media also has there manipulative claws all over women's shoes in other ways as well. The idea that heels make you more appealing the the opposite sex, that to be a successful business woman you must complete your wardrobe with a pair of 6" heels these and more are ways that popular media has attempted to color our choice of footwear.
In contrast, TED talks and academic papers have argued about self image, self concept and what little things like the selection of makeup, hair product or the type of shoe you wear really do for you in the real world. In this global economy it is extremely difficult for anyone to get ahead. On paper many argue that men and women are equals but I will disagree that in the job market that is the case. Studies have shown that if two equally qualified female candidates apply for the same job it will be given to the one who wears the most makeup, the most attractive business suit/dress no matter how uncomfortable, and the tallest heels. The other candidate could be a better asset but the sheer fact that she wears flats, less makeup and comfortable but professional cloths will be her disadvantage.
Specific sociological research has pointed out that over time there have been manifest and latent goals associated with the marketing and prevalence of heels in modern society. The largest manifest goal has been one of sex appeal. Wearing heels fundamentally shifts the weight, and body positions. This allows a more popular media sexual image than flats or oxfords or any other more appropriate shoe for working 8 to 12 hours a day. The heel was even marketed to women for housework, so they could feel better about themselves for doing what needed to be done around the home. When really, a few compliments and sharing the responsibilities would have accomplished the same thing for the women. The latent function of market pushing heels on women is one of dominance. It is almost impossible to run in 6" heels. Depending on the person sometimes walking is a challenging negotiation. The point of importance here is that heels had the latent effect of manipulating women into always being subservient to men. It is much more challenging for a woman to be independent if she cannot even walk down the street quickly and easily without help from the men around her.
Furthermore, prolonged use of heel day in day out permanently alters the entire body and can cause serious complications to the feet which bear the totality of our weight each and every single day. The marketing of shoes has aided dramatically in creating a wedge between genders and between what is and is not acceptable. This is the 21st century we should not have such divides contriving our workforce and our social interactions. We should be putting our best feet forward an a more equal Global Economy that does not discriminate on gender, class, race, SES or the shoe you wear. Lets all move ahead not fall from the ankle down into history.
A Thought Piece by: Jamie Wilcenski, Intern.