Maintaining Shoes/Feet

photo project

The following text was written by Chris Hesselbein, Junior Assistant Professor at the Politecnico di Milano, and reflects his presentation at our Closing Conference, “Repairing Technology – Fixing Society?” from 13-14 October 2022 in Luxemburg.

The production and consumption of apparel, and particularly the subsection known as “fast fashion”, has been criticised for relying on exploitative labour as well as for being a major drain on natural resources and one of the main contributors to environmental pollution. There are multiple factors that complicate any explanation of the phenomenon of fast fashion in terms of its causes and impacts, but one important aspect is consumers’ difficulty in finding apparel that fits their individual body in a practical, comfortable and aesthetic manner, allowing them to build up a meaningful relationship with their apparel and therefore increasing the likelihood of its extended use. Or, rephrased in the parlance of social studies of technology, “users” have difficulties finding mundane technologies that “work” for them. This can lead to dissatisfaction as well as friction and breakdown – of both body and garment – and thus hinder the establishment of an “ethics of care” for such everyday objects.

This paper focuses on one specific type of apparel, or mundane technology, that is central to the performance of various femininities, namely the high-heeled shoe.[i] Although high heels have gone up and down in terms of both their height and their popularity throughout recent history, they remain an important item of apparel for many women to perform aspects of their identity – such as professional authority, sartorial creativity, embodied confidence and competence as well as sexuality and femininity – and therefore to negotiate social relationships in a variety of daily settings.

However, the diversity and complexity of standardised sizing systems, footwear manufacturing processes and differences between brands – generally determined more by economic costs and benefits than by the actual needs of people –, as well as the wide variability of human bodies and their abilities, together result in a situation in which shoes and feet are often not ideally matched. In other words, consumers are regularly forced to conform to shoes that poorly approximate the size and shape of their feet. This issue is particularly pernicious in the case of high heels because of their relatively complex design and the extensive skills that are required to “use” or wear them successfully. The potential consequences of ill-fitting footwear, particularly high heels, are not only bodily discomfort and social embarrassment but also long-term foot deformity, acute trauma, and environmental degradation once shoes or feet have broken down. That is to say, wearing high heels is as much a negotiation of identity as it is one of sociomateriality. Consumers who cannot afford the considerable cost of bespoke high heels and who must make do with mass-produced shoes, which is the case for most people, must therefore adapt such shoes to the singularities of their own feet, or vice versa, in order to bridge the gap between design and actual usage, between successful and unsuccessful performances of identity.

Using ethnographic data collected in New York City in 2016-2019, I discuss the various everyday yet innovative techniques, adaptations, improvisations and forms of care and repair that high-heel wearers employ – both individually as well as with the help of others – in order to prevent the breakdown of their feet as well as their shoes and to keep both “working”. In doing so, I highlight the considerable amount of invisible labour, creativity and skill that is involved when consumers maintain, improve and extend the lifespans of their bodies and shoes. I focus on two sets of practices of care and repair that high-heel wearers engage in before, during and after performing the high-heeled walk that together allow them to stay on their feet and in their shoes.

A first set of practices centres upon the design and materiality of the shoe itself and how this can be modified to suit one’s feet. A common strategy employed by wearers to correct the perceived mismatch between foot and shoe is to resort to a variety of “fixes” or “hacks” to improve wearing comfort. Pharmacies and cobblers sell a variety of commercial solutions, such as insoles, inserts, (moleskin) bandages and sprays, but wearers also resort to household products, such as tissues, sanitary napkins and even glue and double-sided tape to enhance the wearability of their high heels. These solutions are applied to make shoes that are too large or small fit more comfortably and to ensure their “workability”. Another common strategy employed by wearers is to stretch or “break in” a new pair of high heels before subjecting them (and their feet) to a longer period of wearing. Some wearers make sure they break in new shoes during activities they know will be relatively short and unlikely to cause discomfort to their feet. The results of this process of “breaking in” are evident not just in the way a shoe has moulded to the wearer’s foot but also in the signs of wear and tear that are the inevitable result of prolonged use. The wearing down of shoes over time is, however, not simply a matter of decay. It can also be seen as a process through which shoes are enriched with personal meaning. Yet adaptations to shoes and practices of “breaking in” leave traces not just on the shoe but also on the wearer’s feet. Perhaps it is therefore more accurate to speak of a mutual process in which shoes and feet gradually adjust to one another. This interaction is evidenced by the way shoes become moulded to feet, and feet become moulded to shoes. In short, the breaking in of shoes cannot be seen in isolation from the concomitant breaking in of feet.

It is for this reason that high-heel wearers frequently resort to a second set of practices that are geared towards adapting, repairing and maintaining feet and bodily capacities rather than just shoes. In other words, wearers know that their bodies do not simply “work” either: they, too, need adjustment, maintenance and care. The wearing of high heels thus requires not only care and attention to shoes but also preparation, adjustment and repair of the body before, during and after the walk to ensure a smoother experience and to mitigate any potential after-effects. Like the adjustments and modifications to the shoe, these gestures of care and repair are carried out with the help of a variety of commercial and DIY aids. Moreover, in addition to self-care practices such as foot stretching and strengthening exercises, wearers often also resort to a variety of relatively conventional foot care practices, such as soaking one’s feet or applying cold compresses and moisturising creams. Other remedies include resting the feet in an elevated position, massaging painful feet and calves, “shaking” the feet by inserting fingers between the toes and avoiding high heels for a few days.

This paper concludes by reflecting on the implications for the study of technology as well as the role of care and repair practices. First, using/wearing mundane technologies such as high heels, which are often dismissed as merely aesthetic or frivolous commodities, is embedded in a wider body of technical knowledge and skilled practices that are fundamental to understanding our engagement with sociomateriality and the performance of identity. Second, repair work is not only geared towards the durability or fragility of objects or infrastructures but also to that of bodies and identities, which underscores the mutual role played by both in reproducing, maintaining or subverting social order. Third, practices of care and repair employed by wearers are central to ensuring the usability and workability of high heels. Indeed, wearers (or users) are not necessarily always “constrained” by a shoe’s design; on the contrary, they frequently succeed in refashioning a shoe and extending its uses. In a sense, high-heel wearers “make” shoes and bring them to life, both by wearing them and by adapting and maintaining them. This suggests an inversion of the conventional image of designers and manufacturers as the main protagonists in the development of fashion or technology, and highlights how wearers – through their knowledge, skill and creativity – succeed in stabilising and articulating the sociomateriality of shoes and bodies as well as the broader sartorial order. Furthermore, it also underscores how commodities can be made to “work” better for the individual needs and desires of consumers, which suggests that care and repair are a fundamental pathway to ensuring more sustainable forms of apparel production and consumption. Acknowledging the necessarily embodied aspects of care and repair work not only highlights the active and agential role of users/wearers as well as the many forms of tinkering and improvisation they rely on to “make things and bodies work” in situ; it also draws attention to both the pain and the pleasure of such work and the role it plays in performing identities and sustaining certain social orders.

[i] The high heel is relational: its definition not only varies according to context and wearer, but also depends on the wearer’s intention and physical ability. One person might find a pair of high heels immobilising, while another wearer might find them laughably easy to walk in.