THE GREAT DIVIDE
Footwear in The Age Of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was a period in European history from the end of the 17th to the end of the 18th century when philosophers and scientists wrestled with concepts of ‘human nature’ and ‘natural rights’.
Some argued that all people had inherent social and political rights. These ideas challenged longstanding social hierarchies and ushered in dreams of personal liberty and egalitarian rule. Others advocated for the reordering of social hierarchies using ‘scientific’ proof to divide people through the identification of ‘natural’ differences such as gender and race. Much of the oppression and imperialism that marked the period was supported by these ideas.
Throughout the 18th century, fashion, including footwear, was central to the “naturalization” of difference in European. Distinctions between men and women, children and adults, Europeans and “others” became increasingly codified through clothing. Yet, European fashion was also used to blur the lines between classes as social mobility and access to consumable goods grew as a result of imperialism. A close examination of 18th century footwear reveals a great deal about the power dynamics of the period. It also gives insight into the shoes we wear today.
Highlights from the Exhibition
A principal focus of the Enlightenment was establishing who should be entitled to the privileges of ‘natural rights’ which included life, liberty and the right to own property. A few philosophers advocated for the rights of all but the majority argued that these rights were ultimately only “natural” to European men of wealth and fashion was used to support these new ideas. This man’s shoe would have used to express both gender and class. Its low heel conveyed that it was masculine and the expensive fabric and ostentatious bow conveyed that it was upper class. Its use of pink might confuse us today, but in the 18th century pink was not gendered.
The majority of European women did not lead privileged lives yet they were expected to meet the same feminine obligations of upper-class women including the wearing of impractical heels. One way working women acquired footwear was through the cast-off clothing given to them by the people they served. These “gifts” would often be altered by the new wearer. This shoe originally had thin latchets that most likely were tied with a bow over the tongue but were updated to feature more fashionable straps by a later wearer.
During the Enlightenment, European men were held to have a “natural” capacity for reason, but it was also suggested that they were susceptible to irrationality when it came to sexual desire and they were warned to be wary of sexual manipulation. For women, despite the requirement to be “pleasing”, if they were perceived of as exploiting their “sex appeal” they were harshly criticized. Teetering on the line between being pleasing and overly sexual were high heels which soared in height during the 1780s.
Sugar rose in popularity in the West during the 18th century and as demand so did the use of slave labor in its cultivation. Sugar was first brought to Brazil by the Portuguese and then to the West Indies by the Dutch in the 17th century. By the 18th century, the French, British, and Dutch were all engaged in sugar production using forced African slave labour. It is unknown if this French shackle was used for the purposes of slavery, but it reminds us that objects such as these are not artefacts of the oppressed but rather tools of the oppressors. It also reminds us of all the people whose experiences and objects were not historically valued or preserved yet whose stories must be acknowledged and heard.
Early 1800s, Myaamia
Both the British and the Americans were set on empire building after the Revolutionary War. Resistance was mounted by many First Nations including the Myaamia. One of the most admired leaders during the last quarter of the century was Myaamia leader Mishikinawa, also known as Little Turtle who delivered one of the worst defeats in U.S. history at the Battle of Wabash in 1791. This moccasin is said to have belonged to Mishikinawa and features the long cuffs typical of traditional Myaamia footwear decorated with fine ribbon work.
18th c, Indian/English
British imperialism profoundly altered the political, cultural and material landscapes of the Indian sub-continent. The imperialist project is evidenced in this pair of women’s shoes. They began as a pair of upper-class jutti but at some point in the 1790s, their original soles were removed and new European ones were added, transforming them into British women’s shoes. The uppers feature delicate beadwork, wrapped metallic thread establishment and iridescent sequins made from beetle-wings, all hallmarks of the fine Indian craftsmanship and luxury.
In the lead up to the American Revolution and in the years to follow, buy American became a means of demonstrating patriotism. This pair of little girl’s shoes was made in Boston shortly after the revolution in the newly established United States. It was made in the latest fashion, which demanded flats as heels had become associated with aristocratic excess. The label in the shoe clearly established that it was made by the American Jonas S. Bass whose store was located at 45 Marlboro’ Street, Boston.
When Charles Perrault published Cinderella at the end of the 17th century, ideas of female beauty in the West were changing; daintiness was of growing importance in the “naturalization” of gender difference. High heels became a means of creating the illusion of desirably small feet. They hid the majority of the foot under women’s skirts, and the fashion for pointed toes furthered the illusion of smallness. The placement of the heel under the instep also gave the illusion of small footprint.
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