Do shoes symbolise more than just your paycheck?

Image credit: Mehdi Hasan Khan via Wikimedia Commons

In Budapest, a sculptor created sixty pairs of period-appropriate shoes out of iron as a memorial to the victims of fascist Arrow Cross militiamen during World War II: ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’. Sometimes it feels like Theresa May’s collection of footwear has been analysed in greater depth by the media than any recent Conservative policies: a high heel can be an oppressive tool in the workplace, or a way to empower women. Shoes, in short, seem to possess a kind of political, and symbolic, power. Why?

Consider a well-worn shoe, the battered trainer fished out of a pond and the famous six-word story, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn", supposedly written by Hemingway. Shoes carry life, and are worn away by life. Where they serve a predominantly aesthetic purpose, the implication is usually that of a certain amount of affluence on the part of the wearer, and it can be difficult to see the relation between such shoes and the steel-toed boots of the construction worker. Yet, whether aesthetic or purely functional, all are subject to the daily stresses that most people seek to conceal from their person and they serve as reminders of the fragility of life.

Conversely, a lack of footwear has been associated with political and economic impotence. A legacy of colonialism and of continued cultural imperialism had a tendency to link shoes with civilisation, even where they were considered to serve little practical purpose and were used primarily as ornaments and status symbols, as was the case in much of the Ancient World.

Bare feet have long been associated with humility and respect, as well as poverty, and so deliberately forcing others to go barefoot while being shod maintains the rigid social hierarchy. When, during the Paris climate summit, activists were forbidden from protesting, they left 10,000 shoes in their place. They were expressing how they had been sidelined by a political elite, and in such a way that there was a strong, visual representation of the variety and number of the would-be protesters.

Most people know that a protester threw his shoes at George Bush, but this is not a lone example - so much so that Wikipedia has a page entitled ‘List of shoe-throwing incidents’. In terms of practicality, a shoe is admittedly a perfect projectile to sneak into high profile events without arousing suspicion. But it goes deeper than that: shoe are often used to represent the violence with which the well-heeled attempt to stamp out the most vulnerable. The plot of the 1997 Iranian film, Children of Heaven revolves around two siblings forced to share the same pair of shoes, and although the shoes are testament to the poverty of their family, they are also a symbol of hope, enabling the siblings to walk to school each day and receive an education.

It is no wonder then, that the shoe has been so violently seized upon as a political symbol. A pair of worn shoes can serve as an eerie reminder of the life that once filled them, or the very absence of shoes can serve as a stark symbol of oppression. Most conventionally, shoes serve the purpose of comfort and utility. For many besides, they are a form of self-expression. But they step beyond that: they can go from symbolizing hope in a story of two fictional children, to representing grotesque wealth, à la Imelda Marcos.

This article was amended on 29/01/17 at 01:40

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