Sometimes things strike you out of nowhere and you will never be the same again. I am not talking about some revelation, epiphany or an eureka moment. I am talking about someone getting hit by a shoe thrown at him/her. People get hit with lot of stuffs, but getting hit by shoe takes the top spot, when it comes to humiliation. Why is that? On the other end of the spectrum, we have the story of a mythological king ruling an empire by placing his brothers’ shoes on the throne. People even worship and venerate shoes of gods. Why do shoes have such unique cultural importance? Shoes are exhibited to remember people died in war or due to domestic abuse & at the same time they are used in art (here, here) as well. Why do shoes have such a cultural significance? I haven’t come across any other material stuffs, having such a significance.
Is it because shoes symbolize a human life in way that no other material stuffs can do? If one thinks about it, would displaying clothes on bank of river Danube elicit the same emotional response as a pair of shoes does? In a painting or a sculpture, clothes by itself won’t draw any attention. Clothes need to be worn by people to draw attention. While shoes don’t need someone to wear them. A simple drawing of shoes (as Van Gogh’s “Shoes”) could draw people to it. Looking at the shoes one can make guesses about the wearer, the social status of the wearer, the working condition of the wearer and much more. Shoes say something about the person, even without the person being present.
Shoes are both revered and ridiculed. In Indian caste hierarchy, people from lower castes were not allowed to wear shoes while entering an upper caste village. People have this stupid notion that one cannot wear shoes, just because the person was born in a “lower” caste. In this instance, wearing shoes is associated with having higher social stature. But at the same time, a person feels humiliated when hit by shoes. This is not a new phenomenon. Even in ancient Greece, slaves & women were not allowed to wear shoes. So, what is it about shoes that make it as a symbol of pride & humiliation?
Shoes have such a cultural significance that movies use them as symbols. Best examples that come to my mind are Shawshank Redemption & Children of haven. While in the former, a nice pair of polished shoes helps the hero escape Shawshank prison, while in the latter the whole movie revolves around shoes.
Different cultures treat shoes differently, as with other material stuffs. But one cannot imagine leaving his/her dress, watches, mobiles outside before entering their homes. Were as it is highly likely in places such as India, that one cannot wear shoes inside one’s own or someone else’s home. This is not the case in most western nations. Even in these places there are few who practice No shoes policy. I am unaware of any other material stuffs being treated so varied across different cultures.
From a purely capitalistic point of view, owning different kinds of shoes has become a sign of one’s wealth. Companies come up with different kind of shoes for different uses (running, walking, soccer, etc) & make people buy them. People even kill for shoes. The major shoe brands use sweat shops (here, here) to manufacture shoes. So, in classic capitalism style workers are exploited to manufacture shoes that are worth thousands. In this instance, shoes are on par with other materialistic goods used to exhibit wealth. This reveals shoes are not merely the object to cover our feet. They signify something more.
From a psychological point of view, there are studies that reveal it’s possible to guess a person’s traits by looking at his/her shoes. These psychological studies(here, here, here) show that people can guess the nature of the person, by simply looking at the shoes. There is also this widespread pop-culture notion that shoes are the first thing one notices about a person. Regardless of whether shoes are the first things to be notices, shoes indeed draw attention of the observer.
This was merely an attempt to bring to light some socio-cultural significance associated with shoes. During this writing, I came across a few nice websites (here, here, & here) which explain in further detail about shoes. There is even a thesis on shoes and its socio-cultural significance. If we stop and think about these mundane material stuffs, they tend to shed some light on the social/cultural/psychological nature of the society. Do we all have time to do such pondering? Even if we ponder about it, what good it is to us? Isn’t this another revelation about our life’s absurdity?