Sunday, July 25, 2010

Feet and Shoes across cultures

What do you know about feet?

I suppose the most recent thing I've heard about feet comes from runner friends who have been talking about a book, Born to Run, that advocates running without shoes. The argument basically goes, "You've been taught all your life to wear shoes, and have probably shelled out a lot for those specially designed running shoes, but they might actually cause you more injuries."

Well, it's interesting. I haven't researched the science behind the book, but it does go to show that science can always learn something new, and attitudes change, even about something as constantly present as our feet. There are also a lot of different attitudes about feet across cultures, and across history.

One poignant example of this was brought to my attention when I visited the Field Museum in Chicago, where they had a display of shoes from different countries and eras. The collection included beautiful embroidered shoes about two inches long, intended for Chinese women's bound feet. The very sight of them gives me the shivers, yet before the revolution in China they were seen as necessary for the refined beauty of women in the aristocracy. I remember reading Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord in high school and being fascinated by the way she portrayed changing attitudes surrounding bound feet - in particular the way the older generation regarded the younger generation whose feet had not been bound.

I could spend a lot of time trying to list all the things we saw in the display, but I'll just do a few here. Fishing boots from Hokkaido made out of fish skin - with scales! Sandals from Hungary that looked like little tables - they had two wooden supports underneath and were inlaid with mother of pearl. Moccasins from American Indian nations. It even included modern shoes from Chicago.

One of the things I particularly remarked on in the display was a pair of snow boots from Japan, made out of rice straw. They dated from the 1970's - a lot later than I expected. Historically, sandals, rain/snow coats and boots were made of rice straw in Japan (if you have a lot of it, it makes sense to put it to use!). Then there were the construction shoes from Japan and the dockwork shoes from the US, both of which had a big toe that was separated from the smaller toes (almost as if it could wear a flip-flop over it). I've actually seen Japanese workers climbing around on scaffolding wearing these shoes - they look like blue canvas boots with rubber soles and the separated big toe. The wooden sandal-clogs from Japan called geta usually have two wooden "teeth" underneath on which you walk, but we saw a pair in the display that were made for wearing in the rain. These had very very tall wooden teeth and a leather cover to go over and protect the wearer's toes.

So here's a question: how different from each other are the shoes we wear now, and how does their form reflect their function? Sports shoes take all kinds of forms, high ankles or low, with all kinds of decorative patterns. Women's shoes come in all kinds of heel heights (though men in the era of Louis XIV in France were the first to wear high heels). When I shopped for shoes recently, I noticed that the sleek look I like in a shoe tends to come with a high heel, and not with a flat. Tough for me, because I can't wear high heels without hurting myself. The other thing I always have to look out for when shopping is the sole of the shoe. Women's shoes in particular tend to have very flimsy soles and not stand up to much walking.

I couldn't help asking myself whether this reflected the low value Americans appear to put on walking from place to place. Why walk when we could take our cars? Why walk when it would take so long (though it probably would take far less long than you'd think)? Why would we need strong soles for our shoes if we're not doing sports and we're not "rugged"?

The last thing I'd like to mention is the question of whether feet are inherently "dirty." Yes, certainly we know to be concerned with tracking mud in the house, and we don't want to put dirty feet in a clean bed. But running around barefoot in America is romanticized as a sign of freedom and maybe being in touch with one's inner child. Running around barefoot in Japan isn't done. If I were ever to step outside my door in bare feet when I lived there, people would look at me in complete shock. Shoes are worn outside, and then taken off in the entry hall (genkan) so they will not bring dirt into the house. Still, inside people wear slippers - and there's a special pair of slippers that must only be worn while in the bathroom (actually I should specify: the slippers are to be worn in the toilet room, not the room with the bathtub). Also, it's seen as inappropriate to use your feet to open or close doors or accomplish anything that is rightly done with the hands.

The point of this entire discussion is to bring attention to the way that different cultures perceive feet, shoes, how they are used, and what is beautiful or ugly about them. When you're putting together a fantasy or science fictional society, be aware that you can include differences in the value of common things, like feet and shoes, to add interest to your alien or fantasy culture. So long as the value of feet and shoes is consistent with other beliefs in the culture, it won't even necessarily stand out as bizarre, but will give a new level of depth to the culture you're trying to portray.

It's something to think about.


  1. There are actually quite a few other factors that help determine the style and wearing of shoes in addition to those you mentioned. When I lived in Korea, their attitudes toward the wearing of shoes in the home probably mirrored that of Japan, although I can't say about whether most Koreans wore slippers within their homes. Certainly my apartment had the equivalent of the genkan where shoes were taken off and left. Actually, that area next to the front door was "sunken" or, rather, the rest of the apartment floor was raised because of the onbol that lie underneath the floor, providing some warmth to the room.

    A lot of attitudes toward taking shoes off in the home come from practical considerations. Singaporeans universally take off shoes before entering a home (regardless of ethnicity or religion) because the climate is very wet here and one walks through lots of puddles and/or mud. Korean and Singaporean men also frequently spit and, while one tries to avoid stepping in that, one never knows if one did accidentally, so, best to take the shoes off rather than tracking that into the house as well.

    Both Singapore and Korea are still developing economically, and construction sites tend to be muddy and/or dirty.

    Various religious facilities (e.g., Mosques and Buddhist temples) require one to take off one's shoes before entering those buildings. (In Islam, that consideration is practical as there is no furniture in the prayer hall which allows people to walk anywhere, and one puts one's face on the carpeting during prayer.) Also, because one needs to take off one's shoes within mosques, many Muslims choose to wear shoes that don't have laces. In Singapore, sandals and flip-flops are the preferred shoe to wear to the mosque because they are the easiest to put back on when one is leaving the building.

  2. (Too long a comment, so part 2.)

    In Singaporean and Korean homes, bathrooms tend to be wet as there are no bathtubs, thus showering is done in the middle of the bathroom floor (there's a drain in the floor for the water). Only rarely have I worn flip-flops in the bathroom; usually it's just bare feet, which also means that many Singaporeans walk around with bare feet in the rest of the house; wearing socks means needing to take them off before going into the bathroom.

    Singaporeans tend to have two places to store shoes, one indoors and one outdoors. Many apartments here have an outdoor shoe rack, which may be used by family members or guests. However, many people just leave their shoes lying outside their front door when they come home and leave them there overnight. (I used to do that with a pair of flip-flops, but they were stolen, probably by an estate maintenance worker who had big feet like me. Since then I always keep my shoes indoors, unless I know I'm going to be leaving the house within an hour or two.)

    One other factor is health. My dad, his twin brother, and I all wear sandals as our normal foot wear because all three of us are type 2 diabetics. Type 2 diabetics are susceptible to bacterial and fungal skin infections, and closed-toe shoes are perfect environments for those types of beasties (moist, warm). With sandals the feet are drier and cooler, which helps to minimize infections (which are very painful itches). With the exception of some athletic shoes that are only worn for an hour or so at a time, I haven't worn anything but sandals since 2005. (That includes at work, so I tend to buy more stylish sandals. ;) )

    One other side issue is home flooring. Singaporeans and Koreans almost exclusively use ceramic tiles for their floors. With so much dirt and mud here, people would be forever vacuuming their carpets. With tile, cleaning is much faster: just a sweep through and mopping. Those few rugs that are used here tend to be small rugs, either for the kitchen and/or bathroom or larger carpets (like a Persian rug) that's used for decorative purposes.

    Also, it's seen as inappropriate to use your feet to open or close doors or accomplish anything that is rightly done with the hands.

    This line amused me because a certain person I know always uses her toes to pick up things so she doesn't have to bend over. :)

  3. Great points! You've inspired a cultural detail in my WIP. Thanks!

  4. JDsg,

    Thanks for your comments, and thanks too for your great contributions to the topic! It's always great to add another perspective to the mix.

    Deb, I'm glad you found this helpful!

  5. Cool! A clothing related post. Garb is one of my favorite parts of history and culture to study. I love costuming. Shoes are such a foundational part of that. Different types of shoes are worn with different kinds of outfits. Sneakers look odd with fancy dress, and high heels may or may not work with jeans, depending on the style of both shoes and jeans.

    When creating a historical outfit, one must consider the kind of shoes worn with it or the outfit is incomplete and anachronistic. And different SF and fantasy settings have their own styles. For example, many steampunk style settings utilize buckles even on the boots. Sometimes several pairs of buckles, depending on how tall and lavish the boots are and what purpose they have.

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