October 07, 2004

I seem to come back to this point every fall. Perhaps I am a fashion-hound like Alfie.

Yesterday I was talking with the kids about why the British Redcoat uniform was a carefully designed and practical garment - at least from the perspective of the officers and ministers who designed it.

One reason for its design was that the trim - buttons, claywork, etc - required a lot of upkeep. This was busy work for the soldiers - the equivalent of having them go whitewash rocks - and it was intended to keep them from using their time outside the drill field to drink, grumble, or possibly get up a mutiny. There are other reasons for the uniform, but that is why it has some pesky trim.

As part of that discussion I asked the kids how many had spit-shined a pair of shoes recently. None had. In past semesters I have asked students how many know how to spit-shine shoes, and who taught them. About a third know how to do it, mostly guys, and they mostly learned from their dads or from their football coaches - football shoes are shined.

I was thinking about that this morning while touching up the shine on my brown wingtips, shoes that I paid some $120 for back in 1982. A good pair of leather shoes, maintained and resoled, will last almost forever. A trendy pair of decorator basketball sneakers will last a few months. They cost almost the same.

Athletic shoes are differently comfortable - I wear New Balance 851 to walk the dog or as my hanging around shoes, but for relatively sedentary activities a well-broken-in pair of wingtips is a remarkably comfortable set of shoes.

Athletic shoes and dress shoes do have a very different image, informal and formal, designed for movement or designed for sedentary occupations, and both in their way have a different social meaning than do, say, steel-toed work boots. Athletic shoes suggest that the wearer is athletic, that they have the time to engage in purposive exercise. Like a tan, they are a marker of non-functional time spent on entertainment. Dress shoes suggest that the wearer is engaged in an office occupation, that they are white collar and not blue collar workers. Both, then, distance the wearer from people who have to sweat for a living, the one by suggesting that they have time and energy to sweat for fun, the other by suggesting that they don't need to sweat at all.

At one time it was common to measure another person - their class status, adherence to detail, and so on - by checking their shoes. This is less prevalent these days, ever since Nike turned athletic shoes from "little old ladies in tennis shoes" to "runners shoes for everyone" in the 1970s we have lost that focus on spit and polish as a way to present our social identity.

Still, I think that when we get to middle class manners later this semester I will come back to the meaning of shoes, and remind the kids that one of the few groups of people who do check shoes are business recruiters and interviewers. Part of a college education is learning how to play class roles; education breaks class boundaries because it teaches people to play a class role other than what they were raised in; class distinctions can be reinforced by our attention to teaching class manners; I, however, feel better about it if I can both help the students both navigate the shoals of race, class and identity in the modern world and also help them be aware of their actions as they do their navigations.

And so to teach.

Posted by Red Ted at October 7, 2004 11:12 AM | TrackBack

"Athletic shoes and dress shoes do have a very different image, informal and formal, designed for movement or designed for sedentary occupations, and both in their way have a different social meaning than do, say, steel-toed work boots."

Shoes can be an indicator, but they are not always a perfect one. B wears work boots, as they are required attire at the jobsite. Looking only at his shoes, one might think him a carpenter. When one takes the rest of the puzzle-pieces into account... his shoes may say about him that he works under the broad umbrella of construction, but his soft hands, wire-rimmed glasses, and tie say he is something else.

I wear the New Balance 664, because those are the only shoes that New Balance rates for an hour-long studio workout, which is mostly what I do.

My last shopping expedition netted me 5 pairs of shoes. And yes, I needed them all. :)

Posted by: KJ at October 8, 2004 02:12 AM

Agreed - just as if you took his hands, glasses and tie and changed his shoes to sneakers, wing-tips, or wallabies you could easily change his apparant profession and social status. Class, and class image, are composites.

But next time you are reading fiction from the early to middle twentieth century, notice how the author will often use shoes to tell you about a character. My favorite is a bit character from one of Forsythe's action novels, who appeared at first to be a blue pinstriped balloon balanced atop a shiny pair of wing tips, and turned out to be a very fat man who had some guns to sell our hero.

Posted by: Ted K at October 11, 2004 09:14 PM
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