Radical Shoemaking and Dress Reform from Fabians to Feminists

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Much neglected in dress history, comfortable shoes for women are long overdue careful cultural consideration. Despite their humble status – frequently considered unfashionable and unfeminine in relation to their glamorous binary opposite, the stiletto – flat soles have nevertheless played a key role in alternative politics from the nineteenth century to the present day. As central, if often mocked, motifs in health and dress reform, sandals (especially if hand-crafted) have enduring associations with practices of ‘simple living’ and are often used metonymically to figure – as in George Orwell’s famous interwar designation - the fruit-juice drinking, nudist, pacifist crank. Practical, flat boots for women, similarly, stand as symbols of second wave feminist resistance against the apparent restrictions of dominant femininity, as utilitarian anti-fashion or even as queer alternatives. With more than thirty years in business, the South Devon all-female shoemaking collective Green Shoes has long promoted footwear with a social conscience. From early adverts in the back pages of women’s liberation magazine Spare Rib to a close engagement with the current ethical fashion movement, the company combines a practical politics with the design, production and sale of stylish, comfortable footwear. As a small-scale business, maintaining traditional hand-making techniques and operating on ecological principles, and as a part of the longstanding alternative economy of Totnes and Dartington and its environs, the company holds a distinct position at the nexus of a number of intersecting social and political, historical and geographical concerns. As such, Green Shoes offers a pertinent case study for reviewing the changing fortunes and meanings of the craft economy and as an alternative vantage point from which to examine the enduring, if complex, relationship between women and shoes. Utliising documents and garments from the company’s archive and interviews with the directors alongside engagement with feminist fashion history and theory, this chapter puts radical handmade footwear in historical and cultural context, as objects of desire as well as objects of refusal. Taking in preindustrial political bookmakers and Edward Carpenter's open-toed attempts at bodily liberation as well as dress reform of the 1970s and its legacy in the present day, this chapter casts off the ill-fitting accusation that footwear is merely a frivolous feminine concern.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationDress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice
EditorsCharlotte Nicklas, Annebella Pollen
Place of PublicationUK
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9780857855411
Publication statusPublished - 10 Sept 2015


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