The Story of Shoes

| August 22, 2013

Doing a little research for the Aesthetics of Technology course this Fall, I get side-tracked by shoes. Or rather, its hard to find something that shoes aren’t at the bottom of. (I’m envisioning a two course “foundations” series now: Interfaces I: Chairs, Interfaces II: Shoes.)

But I digress. Here’s the video that side-tracked me: The Story of Shoes, put out by New York University in 1930. Not only do we see the aesthetics of shoes in relationship to the technology that makes them, we also see—since despite claiming to educate, it’s hard to say exactly what we’ve learned from it, even with a trained eye—the aesthetic of industrial documentary.

And something funny is at work here, as if what we are looking at is the display of modernism itself. A display, I would argue, that is not incidentally, but not primarily about shoes. In other words, to be provocative: shoes are merely one of, if not the privileged way by which we understand modernism. And despite the impression that we now know something about shoes, the shoes themselves, never mind the feet, elude us. Instead, seeming to separate ourselves from the folkloric and quaint past, for an educated modernism, what we are told is something like the myth of industry and shoes.

The lead in is in fact quite surreal, beginning with nursery rhyme:

There was an old woman

who lived in a shoe,

she had so many children

she didn’t know what

to do.

Cut to a picture of a modern (non-shoe) house, and we are told by contrast:

But this modern mother,

and her children too,

have learned how to manage,

know just what to do.”

How’s that, you ask?

She’s up to the minute

She has modern views,

She’s ready to solve

the great problem

of shoes.

What is the great problem of shoes? Modernism itself, we might say. Or rather the need to know—to “have modern views”—that shoes are produced through modern means. That is all.

We could say, in fact, that this is precisely the great problem of shoes: that modernism’s “great problem of shoes” is banal, while shoes and their modernist effect on us, eludes us. We are shown the factory and the workers engaging the interchange between leather and machine, but nary a foot, shod or not. After rigorously inspecting the shoes at the end of the line, they are put in their boxes. From a house-as-shoe to a shoe-in-its-house. Neatly packaged.

And so this modern mother,

With her up-to-date-views,

Has easily solved

The great problem

Of shoes.

I will leave you here, to ponder what she has solved. But if you are interested, I’ve written elsewhere on the strange relation between modernism and footwear.