DAVIS, Calif. (AP) — From flip-flops slapping on the sands of Malibu to stilettos clacking on New York pavements, what you wear on your feet says a lot about who you are.
That’s the thinking behind “Stepping Out,” a footwear exhibit at the University of California, Davis, Design Museum that explores the language of soles.
“Behind every pair of shoes we can have a story — social impact, religion, culture, economy,” says Adele Zhang, a curator of the shoe show at the University of California, Davis, Design Museum. “So, a single pair of shoes can provide an entire picture.”
“Stepping Out,” running through July 12, features nearly 70 pairs of shoes culled from UC Davis’s extensive textile holdings that range from functional to fabulous.
Some examples: ornately beaded American Indian moccasins, Japanese straw snow boots (which look oddly trendy), an artist’s rendering of a shoe in barbed wire that should strike a chord with any woman who ever got stuck walking blocks in the wrong pair of heels and a selection of mid-20th century pumps that conjure up air-kissed encounters of ladies who lunch.
Men’s shoes are also represented, from a sensible pair of lace-ups to a rather fabulous pair of boots, part of a Bolivian dance costume, that are decorated with bells down the side.
Some shoe stories aren’t pleasant. A poignant item in the collection is a tiny, ornate shoe designed to be worn by a Chinese woman who’d undergone the painful and deforming practice of foot-binding.
Being able to wear the shoes marked you as a member of the upper class, notes Zhang. Peasant girls who had to work the fields grew up with natural feet.
Other shoes recall distant times, like the dainty boots once worn by a 19th-century lady.
And some are just fun, like the gold spangled platform sandals that would have been right at home at Studio 54 but turn out to hail from Karachi, Pakistan.
Choosing shoes as an anthropological artifact works because “they’re appealing and there’s something about the tangible, physical object that you can look at and walk around,” says exhibit co-curator Nora Cary, a Davis design student who is also studying anthropology. “They’re also something that everyone has and everyone can identify with.”
The idea of taking shoes seriously is a fairly new one, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, who sees shoes as a “really interesting stepping stone into larger cultural issues.”
Shoes reveal social standing — well-heeled, down-at-heel — and also indicate what kind of life you lead.
“If you’re wearing silk shoes, you’re not clomping in the mud. If you’re wearing a high heel — all of these things signal how far you don’t have to walk, how long you don’t have to stand for,” Semmelhack says.
Even in the modern world, shoes retain their semaphoric qualities. “A boss who shows up in a suit with his wingtips shined is sending a different message than one who shows up in his jeans and his tennis sneakers,” says Semmelhack.
The current fashion moment, at least for women, is platform shoes, designed to put the wearer head and shoulders above the crowd (provided she doesn’t trip and end up flat on her face).
“Platforms are interesting, very cyclical — they come through every 25, 30 years,” says Meghan Cleary, who blogs about shoes and wrote “The Perfect Fit: What Your Shoes Say About You.”
She sees towering shoes as recognition of the gains women have made in recent years, not least of which being Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the presidential nomination.
“Shoes more than any other item of fashion that we put on our body have a physiological impact on us, they affect the way we walk, the way we carry ourselves,” Cleary says. “There’s so much we can tell about people from their shoes.”