Actually, You Can't Tell Everything About a Person From Their ShoesS

Apparently, that study that the press purported to show demonstrated that strangers could correctly guess an astonishing range of personal qualities — everything from age to political affiliation to characteristics like introversion and aggression — simply by looking at a person's most-worn pair of shoes was a little oversold. The guesses of the research subjects were accurate, explains Bloomberg columnist Virginia Postrel, but they mostly pertained to things you would expect to be evident from a pair of shoes.

Describing an experiment by researchers from the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, many reports declared that shoes alone reveal just everything about the wearer's personality. "Overly aggressive people wear ankle boots," proclaimed a Los Angeles National Public Radio host.

What psychologist Omri Gillath and his team actually found was more modest. Without the cues of facial expressions and context, college students could guess basic demographic characteristics from looking at photos of other college students' footwear: gender, age and income. They could also detect the personality trait known as agreeableness, as well as something called attachment anxiety, which is connected to fear of rejection and was correlated with dull-colored shoes. That was all: not political affiliation, not how extroverted the wearers were, not whether they were overly aggressive.

So headlines like "You Can Judge 90 Percent of a Stranger's Personal Characteristics Just by Looking at Their Shoes" are overstating the case. That doesn't mean the research isn't still worthy of discussion. "The study," writes Postrel, "made a solid contribution to research on first impressions, but it was hardly earthshaking. By getting so much attention, however, it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes."

BOY do we! Why do you think I'm writing this post right now? Because this is the one story that came over the transom today that's about shoes! I see "SHOES" in a subject line and I'm like, "CLICK!"

Okay, that's an exaggeration, but there is something there. "Even those who dismissed the research as silly," says Postrel of the flurry of media interest that greeted the study's publication, "often felt compelled to call radio stations or comment on websites, providing details about their own choices."

Adam Smith wrote about shoes in The Wealth of Nations. Shoes have been the focus of sumptuary laws, and shoe customs vary from country to country. (Where I grew up, in New Zealand, it was still socially acceptable to go barefoot in public in certain situations — like the supermarket or a city bus.) Shoes are in the academy — "If The Shoe Fits: Footwear, Identity and Transition" is an ongoing project of the University of Sheffield. Americans bought, on average, seven new pairs of shoes last year. We supposedly own on average 11 pairs each, but that may be an undercount because most people underestimate the number of pairs of shoes they own. (I thought I had about 17 pairs of shoes, but I just went to my closet and found I own 34.)

Whether Jimmy Choos, Pumas or Toms, shoes let us stand out as individuals while fitting into similarly shod social groups. The complex relationship between the social and the personal is why it's so hard to tell much about a shoe's owner from a photograph alone — and why shoes are so interesting. Their meanings require, and sometimes reveal, broader cultural context. Bergstein tells the story of a Texas high school that in 1993 punished students for wearing Doc Martens, falsely assuming that the boots signaled white racism when in fact they merely reflected students' musical taste. A shoe, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, "is an accessory that can carry a lot of cultural meaning."

Shoes have, for instance, long defined the border between luxury and necessity. Too many or too expensive, and they invite condemnation as an indulgence; too few, or the wrong kind, and they symbolize poverty and shame. Think of Imelda Marcos — or the current divorce dispute between hedge-fund honcho Daniel Shak and his poker-playing ex-wife Beth Shak over her 1,200 pairs of designer shoes — versus "barefoot and pregnant." Tracing the shifts in footwear norms reveals patterns in economic development, class structure, manufacturing technology, sex roles, even international relations.

In between tracing the history of shoes as a social signifier, Postrel makes some salient points about the ambivalent treatment of shoes — and material culture in general — within the academy. "The bigger issues at stake" when we talk about shoes are no less than:

How do we understand life in a commercial, consumer-oriented society? Academic traditionalists and hard-headed advocates of "practical" research often dismiss scholarship on material culture, including shoes, as frivolous nonsense. So they leave thinking about questions like why people buy shoes and what they mean in people's lives to Marxists, Freudians and others who decry commercial culture, treat consumers as powerless dupes or, at best, reduce every "unnecessary" purchase to some form of status competition.

The result is a desiccated understanding of history and culture. In an academic article, Sherlock decries "the postmodern tendency to fetishise the shoe, both in the Marxian (commodity fetish) and Freudian (psycho-sexual) sense, for what it ‘stands' for rather than what it is." Even when they contain an element of truth, such theories are as simplistic and misleading as the claim that ankle boots indicate an overly aggressive personality. Commercial culture — our culture — deserves better.

There is one obvious reason for this marginalization of fashion and its components — textiles, apparel, accessories, fiber arts, etc — that Postrel, for whatever reason, does not raise: gender and sexuality. Fashion has traditionally been considered the domain of women and gay men. And that's partly why it's still commonly written off, despite its huge economic and cultural impacts, as "frivolous."

Boots Were Made For Talking (About Who We Are) [Bloomberg]

Earlier: You Are Your Shoes, According to Science

Image bydean bertoncelj/Shutterstock.