Shoes as material expressions of a designer’s self

Having completed a twenty month long ethnography that explored and observed the creative practice of a number of contemporary British based luxury shoe designers, it became significantly apparent that the designed shoes were not solely commercial, aesthetic objects; they were also material representations of the shoe designer’s own self identity. As I spent months in the designers’ studios watching them engage with their ideas, drawings, the flat materials (leathers and snakeskins), that would eventually be worked on to create the 3-d form of a shoe, it was intriguing to hear them narrate how the inspiration for the design stemmed from their own biographies and experiences of life. Part of my research had involved life history interviews that asked the designers to narrate their creative pasts. These were carried out in the studios or homes of the designers and were object based, as they used their archive of past creations to narrate not just how and why they had created that particular shoe, but also memories of their life and experiences at the time of its creation. Much research focuses on the shoe as a finished object which is relational as it forges an intimate relationship with the body of its wearer. What stemmed though from my research was a different way of thinking about the shoe and its relationality. My ethnographic findings revealed that its significance as an object that carries memory starts at the point of creation, and, continues through the design and making process where the individual designers and makers have co-existed in a dialectic relationship that has created a shoe.

I was fortunate to have been able to observe and interview some fascinating shoe designers for my doctorate, one of whom was Terry de Havilland, famously known as the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ cobbler. Spending time in Terry de Havilland’s studio I was not only able to observe him making future designs but also see his vast archive of created shoes, stemming back to the 1960’s. Terry would walk me around his studio and picking up his past creations he would reminiscence about his life around the time of its creation. Particularly significant were his memories of what he termed ‘the rollercoaster of craziness’ that he had experienced during the 1970’s. As he recalled his wild nights out where he absorbed the psychedelic ambience of the surrounding social scene, he demonstrated how his created shoes, through their materiality, embodied his experiences of the time. His favoured design then were platforms made out of iridescent, metallic snakeskins, these were reflections of the craziness of the era and now stand as material representations of not only his creative past but also his own biography. These platforms were made for a commercial end, yet embedded and hidden behind the aesthetic exterior are memories of the designer who brought them to life.

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Terry de Havilland’s Snakeskin Platforms circa 1970’s (authors own)

In 1980 Thea Cadabara, the London based shoe designer, created one of her most famous designs, ‘The Maid’ shoe. Through this design Thea was able to narrate its creation and thus reveal part of her own biography. At the time of its conception Thea’s husband, James, a jewellery designer, had bought her a vintage maid’s set with apron, cuffs and headpiece. Thea made herself a black velvet dress to wear with these but then needed some stylish shoes to complete the look. She designed and made a black pair of shoes with a white pleated apron front on the upper that tied around the back, mimicking the bows of the apron. Putting it in to the context of the time Thea remembered how there had been a revival for the Lyon’s Corner House in London with its ‘nippy’ maids – waitresses in traditional uniforms. The 70’s and 80’s were for Thea and her husband a time of fun, freedom and opportunities for creative expression., evident in the one off pieces that she designed and made. Her husband James came up with the idea for the heels of ‘The Maid’, these were an iconic reference to the shape the female legs form when wearing high heels. He carved these by hand. This particular design is on display in the Northampton shoe museum yet its history and the memories of its creators are invisible to its spectators. Recently Thea has remade the shoe and within it are a whole series of new memories relating to her current past where she has revisited designs from this period and started to re-create them in a contemporary context.

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Thea Cadabara ‘The Maid’ ©Thea Cadabara

It has been well documented that shoes are significant objects for communicating identity and memories for their wearers. The shoe is a structured form but through wearing it takes on the imprint of its wearer’s foot, conforming to the shape and showing evidence of wear across its surfaces. What is invisible to the wearer and observer of shoes though is how the designer and maker’s own history is embedded within the design. As I watched designers like Terry and Thea make shoes it was evident how through their own action upon the materials and forms they were imparting their own physical presence into the shoe. The designed shoes therefore contained both visible and invisible traces of the shoe designer’s creative and cultural biography. Contemporary culture’s fascination with shoes demonstrates through a proliferation of newspaper and magazine articles, how they are ideal objects to communicate feelings and self-identity, yet this tends to mask the significance that shoes have in representing their creators own feelings of self. Through my research I discovered that memories are embedded in shoes and that these go beyond the wearer to embrace the material traces of their creators.

Dr Naomi Braithwaite is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Her doctoral thesis is titled ‘Shoe Design: an Ethnographic Study of Creativty’. The blog article is drawn from the doctoral findings.

 For further information contact Naomi on N.braithwaite@mmu.ac.uk

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One Response to Shoes as material expressions of a designer’s self

  1. jenny hockey says:

    Your work really extends what we’ve been doing on the If the Shoe Fits project, taking us further back into the shoe’s history, before it met its present owner, and gives us a real taste of how it intersects with the designer’s life history. I hope the book is forthcoming!

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