Gotta Be the Shoes: Virginia Postrel on Taking Material and Commercial Culture Seriously

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Great col by former Reason head Virginia Postrel about new research on the social significance of footwear:

Shoes have…long defined the border between luxury and necessity. Too many or too expensive, and they invite condemnation as an indulgence; too few, or the wrong kind, and they symbolize poverty and shame. Think of Imelda Marcos — or the current divorce dispute between hedge-fund honcho Daniel Shak and his poker-playing ex-wife Beth Shak over her 1,200 pairs of designer shoes — versus "barefoot and pregnant." Tracing the shifts in footwear norms reveals patterns in economic development, class structure, manufacturing technology, sex roles, even international relations.

Postrel runs through a number of recent articles and books about shoes and their meanings. It's all very interesting in and of itself, but her point is larger:

How do we understand life in a commercial, consumer-oriented society? Academic traditionalists and hard- headed advocates of "practical" research often dismiss scholarship on material culture, including shoes, as frivolous nonsense. So they leave thinking about questions like why people buy shoes and what they mean in people's lives to Marxists, Freudians and others who decry commercial culture, treat consumers as powerless dupes or, at best, reduce every "unnecessary" purchase to some form of status competition.

The result is a desiccated understanding of history and culture. In an academic article, Sherlock decries "the postmodern tendency to fetishise the shoe, both in the Marxian (commodity fetish) and Freudian (psycho-sexual) sense, for what it 'stands' for rather than what it is." Even when they contain an element of truth, such theories are as simplistic and misleading as the claim that ankle boots indicate an overly aggressive personality. Commercial culture—our culture—deserves better.

Read the whole thing.

Read her Reason archive here.

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  1. Sometimes, a shoe is just a shoe.

  2. I believe in shoes that don’t hurt. In that regard, Bally’s are an abomination.

    1. I was pretty impressed with the comfort of a pair of Sketchers I recently bought. They turned out to be a better pair of walking/hiking sneakers then I thought they would be.

      1. I’ve got several pair I bought on closeout. Stick some extra arch protection in there and they are great.

  3. I’m just gonna have a drink right now, on general principles.

    1. Why, do ugly-ass $540 sneaks bother you?

      1. HyR insider joke, Scruff.

  4. I’ve been unhappy since Doc Martens started being made in China – the leather quality has gone downhill, but I’ll admit they are still longlasting.

    1. Well and the comfort has suffered a bit as well. The edges are stiffer. I’m wearing a pair of MJs right now that have rubbed a blister, which is unheard of in my older pairs.

  5. Virginia’s boots were made for walkin’…

  6. So where the people here stand on the whole issue of vulgar popular culture?

    I mean the end of the Production Code, the Comics Code, Cable TV, end of prohobition, drug use and Gay Marriage don’t seem to be doing anything to stop the increasing size of the US state (or other western states) so I do wonder if this gushing is a bit misplaced.

    On the other hand there are libertarians who think that the vulgar popular culture praised by the reasonoids and such as nothing more than modern day SOMA. Of course the problem with this is that they seem to be advocating the politicization of everything, which seems to contradict libertarian goals. And they seem to be saying that in a libertarian society everyone will be free to do whatever they want as long it is something that libertarians like, which again is a contradiction. This also leads to the question of how a libertarian society can survive if vulgar popular culture and drugs can destroy it.

    So what do you guys think?

    1. And they seem to be saying that in a libertarian society everyone will be free to do whatever they want as long it is something that libertarians like

      I’ll give you my more anarchistic leaning view. You’re free to do anything you like and if I don’t like it I’m free to mock you for it.

    2. In Libertopia, there won’t be any American Idol, right?

    3. I, for one, am looking forward to the premier of Whose Ass is it Anyway?

      1. I’m not. I’m deathly afraid that I’ll get all hot and bothered for a shapely bare ass only to find out it’s Warty’s post-nair treatment.

    4. Popular culture has always been vulgar. It’s just that the language used to express it changes regularly.

      Reduced to our essence, humans do four things: eat, copulate, excrete, and fight over the first two things. Popular culture has always addressed those basic things much more directly than high culture–hence the perceived vulgarity.

    5. So where the people here stand on the whole issue of vulgar popular culture?

      I like what I like, and I really don’t care much what other people like?

  7. How do we understand life in a commercial, consumer-oriented society?

    As for this point: why do we have to give a fuck? Why can’t we just let people do whatever they want to do? Do we really need another bunch of eggheads to sit around wondering why people buy the shit they buy? If your business is trying to figure out what to sell, then fine. Otherwise, I don’t really see a point.

    1. Cocktail parties man, cocktail parties.

    2. As for this point: why do we have to give a fuck? Why can’t we just let people do whatever they want to do?

      I think it’s a good question?and one you answer with your own. You don’t think we should give a fuck because of the way you “understand life in a commercial, consumer-oriented society.” And Postrel’s point is that if we only let the current bunch of eggheads try to answer questions like that, we get other answers, ones we disagree with, like “materialism is destroying our culture” or something.

  8. What do $540 sneakers worn by the First Lady tell you?

    It tells me that she doesn’t know the value of anything and can’t be trusted to spend other people’s money.

    1. They tell me that she has no taste, no sense, and will wear just about anything that has a high price tag on it, especially if somebody gave it to her for free.

  9. Boy, they’ve really got the wealth envy going full blast on MSNBC right now. SWISS. BANK. ACCOUNTS.

  10. So, what does it say about me that I still wear to work sometimes a pair of circa 1963 Florsheim cordovan leather wingtips that were my Grandfather’s?(Ridicule me all you want.)

    The semiotics of clothing is nothing new. The book Class by the recently deceased Paul Fussell has an entire chapter on clothing and what it says about the wearer. Although not a scholarly book it is pretty spot on for the most part.

    Back in the late 70’s when I was at an east-coast boarding school, clothes, but shoes especially, told much about you. The more decrepit your shoes the more money your family likely had. Yes, I actually had class-mates who used duct tape to hold a shoe together.

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