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


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.