The late great comedy actor Beryl Reid said that when she was creating a character the first and most important thing to get right was the shoes.
A research project by sociologists at the University of Sheffield has taken that notion further and explored the contribution of footwear to people’s identities in real life.
The findings form an exhibition and documentary called If the Shoe Fits providing insights into the place of shoes within the lives of ordinary people.
On show in the Winter Garden from Monday are items from the shoe lives of 15 Sheffielders and what they have to say about the world at their feet.
If the Shoe Fits, the documentary made by Sheffield Vision, being screened at the Showroom on Monday follows the stories of Nicola and Lizzie , two very different women who took part in the research. Alongside unique insights into their shoe lives, it has interviews with other Sheffield residents out and about and leading experts in the field.
Jenny Hockey, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociological Studies, has previously carried out extensive work on social identity. This latest area of investigation came about after she noticed the repeated use of shoes to transform characters in fairy stories and the popular media from Cinderella to Sex and the City.
Examples are the seven league boots that help Puss-in-Boots go up in the world, Cinderella’s glass slipper; Dorothy’s red shoes in the Wizard of Oz, Billy Dane’s magical football boots; the promise of athletic performance in Nike adverts; and the representation of the ‘power’ of designer heels in Sex and the City. She wanted to understand how someone’s identity can change on an everyday basis when they pull off their work boots and strap on their high heels, and in those one-off moments when a baby first takes to its feet or the bride and groom walk down the aisle.
The power of dressing up and going out is shown In the film when director Eve Wood interviews revellers on West Street, In the initial stages around 90 people who responded to invitation were divided into eight focus groups and out of that 15 were chosen - both male and female - to represent a broad range from fashionistas to elderly ladies from a luncheon club. They were all asked to list all their footwear and then had to log when they changed, showing how they were moving between different sides of their identity.
“We all had a go at doing a log and it made me realise how many pairs I had myself and I didn’t think of myself as a shoe lover,” says Prof Hockley. “ I got rid of some and it made me think much more about comfort in footwear.”
The team liaised with the Centre for Gender Research to organise a Dressed Bodies Symposium next month and held sessions with the Sheffield Podiatry Service to look at the health issues.
“Your shoes may be down at the end of your feet but they affect your whole body,” adds Prof Hockley.
If the Shoe Fits is on show at the Winter Garden from July 1-15.