Sitting up on the platform at graduation, fully-robed, was a great shoe-watching opportunity. As graduates-to-be came up the steps I could see many were nervous. It was hard to walk across that platform looking cool, as if you belonged there. Many women wore striking, maybe new pairs of shoes, often with towering heels. Was this a good idea? For some, the challenge of high heels seemed to add to their self consciousness. Outside on the campus I got a better view of the protective plasters. Reportedly plasters also littered on the graduation hall floor.
As any anthropologist will tell you, rites of passage often involve pain and humiliation – ritual scarring, crawling on your hands and knees in public view. Were the new graduates using pain and embarassment to imprint their rite of passage into their memories?
Data from the Shoe Project suggest a different story: for women of different ages, high heels are an important way of marking out a ‘special occasion’, whether it’s a night out, a wedding, a race meeting. Without them the event loses something, they can’t ‘rise to the occasion’ in the same way. As both women and men walk across the platform and take up their new status, shoes associated with traditional femininity, rather than gender equality, make their presence felt, quite literally. What does this suggest for graduates’ futures?
Another observation, from a wearer of robes, just like the graduates: in them I am a woman in men’s clothing. In drag perhaps? I have no tie to slide the cord of the hood under. I have to loop it on my blouse button. It tugs at it, makes my blouse slide out of my skirt. Unlike male colleagues I have to manage and adjust my clothing all the time. Their dark suits disappear nicely under the gown, but there’s no equivalent in my wardrobe – not with that all-important blouse button. What does this tell us about identity?
Some people look very ‘together’ as they walk across platform, but many don’t. Am I witnessing a disturbing assemblage of different identities when I see a woman wearing a very short, revealing dress and enormous heels under this masculine apparel? Or when a man has dreads stuffed under his mortar board, a short sleeved shirt and trainers? Have contexts collided here? The night club and the old boys’ club? Is this why we know when someone has the ‘right’ shoes for a particular outfit, why choosing them is so important?
Or is the whole of student life a rite of passage, not just graduation? You leave home and spend three years betwixt and between adolescence and adulthood, trying on identities for size, along with sex and recreational drugs? Is graduation your re-entry into sobriety, the nine-to-five, adult obligations? Does the gown and mortar board presage all those other ‘uniforms’ waiting for you? Is that walk across the platform your last chance to poke society in the eye and wear something a bit outrageous, something that shouts ‘me!’ from out of that black cloth? One graduate gave the Chancellor a smacker of a kiss on his cheek, not a damp handshake, then waved her fists triumphantly, her dare dared. He didn’t seem to mind.
I walked across that platform years ago. Now I’m on the sidelines. What’s your view? As a shoe wearer? Or a watcher?