Sunday, July 25, 2010

Feet and Shoes across cultures

What do you know about feet?

I suppose the most recent thing I've heard about feet comes from runner friends who have been talking about a book, Born to Run, that advocates running without shoes. The argument basically goes, "You've been taught all your life to wear shoes, and have probably shelled out a lot for those specially designed running shoes, but they might actually cause you more injuries."

Well, it's interesting. I haven't researched the science behind the book, but it does go to show that science can always learn something new, and attitudes change, even about something as constantly present as our feet. There are also a lot of different attitudes about feet across cultures, and across history.

One poignant example of this was brought to my attention when I visited the Field Museum in Chicago, where they had a display of shoes from different countries and eras. The collection included beautiful embroidered shoes about two inches long, intended for Chinese women's bound feet. The very sight of them gives me the shivers, yet before the revolution in China they were seen as necessary for the refined beauty of women in the aristocracy. I remember reading Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord in high school and being fascinated by the way she portrayed changing attitudes surrounding bound feet - in particular the way the older generation regarded the younger generation whose feet had not been bound.

I could spend a lot of time trying to list all the things we saw in the display, but I'll just do a few here. Fishing boots from Hokkaido made out of fish skin - with scales! Sandals from Hungary that looked like little tables - they had two wooden supports underneath and were inlaid with mother of pearl. Moccasins from American Indian nations. It even included modern shoes from Chicago.

One of the things I particularly remarked on in the display was a pair of snow boots from Japan, made out of rice straw. They dated from the 1970's - a lot later than I expected. Historically, sandals, rain/snow coats and boots were made of rice straw in Japan (if you have a lot of it, it makes sense to put it to use!). Then there were the construction shoes from Japan and the dockwork shoes from the US, both of which had a big toe that was separated from the smaller toes (almost as if it could wear a flip-flop over it). I've actually seen Japanese workers climbing around on scaffolding wearing these shoes - they look like blue canvas boots with rubber soles and the separated big toe. The wooden sandal-clogs from Japan called geta usually have two wooden "teeth" underneath on which you walk, but we saw a pair in the display that were made for wearing in the rain. These had very very tall wooden teeth and a leather cover to go over and protect the wearer's toes.

So here's a question: how different from each other are the shoes we wear now, and how does their form reflect their function? Sports shoes take all kinds of forms, high ankles or low, with all kinds of decorative patterns. Women's shoes come in all kinds of heel heights (though men in the era of Louis XIV in France were the first to wear high heels). When I shopped for shoes recently, I noticed that the sleek look I like in a shoe tends to come with a high heel, and not with a flat. Tough for me, because I can't wear high heels without hurting myself. The other thing I always have to look out for when shopping is the sole of the shoe. Women's shoes in particular tend to have very flimsy soles and not stand up to much walking.

I couldn't help asking myself whether this reflected the low value Americans appear to put on walking from place to place. Why walk when we could take our cars? Why walk when it would take so long (though it probably would take far less long than you'd think)? Why would we need strong soles for our shoes if we're not doing sports and we're not "rugged"?

The last thing I'd like to mention is the question of whether feet are inherently "dirty." Yes, certainly we know to be concerned with tracking mud in the house, and we don't want to put dirty feet in a clean bed. But running around barefoot in America is romanticized as a sign of freedom and maybe being in touch with one's inner child. Running around barefoot in Japan isn't done. If I were ever to step outside my door in bare feet when I lived there, people would look at me in complete shock. Shoes are worn outside, and then taken off in the entry hall (genkan) so they will not bring dirt into the house. Still, inside people wear slippers - and there's a special pair of slippers that must only be worn while in the bathroom (actually I should specify: the slippers are to be worn in the toilet room, not the room with the bathtub). Also, it's seen as inappropriate to use your feet to open or close doors or accomplish anything that is rightly done with the hands.

The point of this entire discussion is to bring attention to the way that different cultures perceive feet, shoes, how they are used, and what is beautiful or ugly about them. When you're putting together a fantasy or science fictional society, be aware that you can include differences in the value of common things, like feet and shoes, to add interest to your alien or fantasy culture. So long as the value of feet and shoes is consistent with other beliefs in the culture, it won't even necessarily stand out as bizarre, but will give a new level of depth to the culture you're trying to portray.

It's something to think about.