Last Wednesday I travelled up to Liverpool to give a paper at conference on ‘Getting Dressed in the Eighteenth Century’. My paper was on shoes, thinking about the relationship between footwear and the body. I was going to discuss the impact that the body has upon shoes: shoes stretch to the shape of the foot and so present a unique source about their wearer. I also wanted to talk about the impact that shoes have upon the body: in the eighteenth century, inspired by the new science of ‘hygiene’, various writers were exercised about the healthiness, fit and flexibility of footwear.
I have been working on shoes for a few years now, and in preparing for a paper on the topic I particularly had shoes on the mind. Checking twitter that morning I was therefore excited to see the hashtag #asecsshoes: was there a panel on shoes at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, which was also happening at that time? No, it turned out that numerous ASECS attendees were working out what shoes to take with them.
I could relate to this as I too put a lot of thought into what shoes I wear to conferences. Academic conferences (especially big ones like ASECS) involve long days, walks between venues and lots of standing around. You therefore want to be comfortable but you may also choose to shod yourself smartly if, say, you are presenting, attending a reception or (in the case of some American conferences) on the job market.
(The issue of what constitutes an ‘academic dress code’ is a political minefield that I do not want to get into here, so I will confine myself to shoes. I am also aware of the irony of a man writing about uncomfortable footwear, but please bear with me.)
Since I have been going to conferences to talk about shoes, I have put a bit more effort into what shoes I wear to them. Talking about shoes will draw attention to what is on my feet, and I don’t want to let the side down. As I live and work in Northampton – the centre of the British shoe industry – and because I am largely talking about examples from the town’s museum and its National Leather Collection, I have taken to wearing shoes made in the area when I talk about them. Shoes made in the UK are normally expensive, but as a good Northamptonian I know how to get them cheap from factory sales.
I usually only take one pair of shoes to conferences, as I can’t be bothered to lug another pair of size 12s around. So I wore a pair of brown brogue boots with thick leather soles. Fetching and practical, I thought.
I travelled up to Liverpool the day before the conference, to be there for an early start the next day. This gave me time to wander round this fantastic city – something I always try to do on conference trips. By the evening, though, I was beginning to wish I’d worn trainers. It was a hot day and Liverpool is very hilly, so the heavy boots gave me blisters. The hard leather soles were unforgiving on the city’s Georgian flagstones and cobbles.
When I gave my paper the next day about unsuitable footwear and sweaty feet, I could therefore empathise with eighteenth-century urban walkers. I should have followed the advice of the Georgian chiropodists cited in the paper, who recommended woollen socks over cotton, for preventing dampness and blistering.
It was a fantastic conference, which concluded at the Walker Gallery with a discussion about their collection of eighteenth-century costume. Many of the garments discussed during the day – including shoes, women’s pockets and men’s wigs – featured in the exhibition. The gallery have also produced a popular series of videos on ‘Getting Dressed’, showing how these garments were worn on actual bodies, rather than displayed statically like they usually are in museums.
Walking back to Lime Street station, I passed the Empire Theatre where the touring production of the hit musical Kinky Boots is currently playing. Northampton’s shoes get everywhere.
Matthew McCormack is Professor of History at the University of Northampton