In Mike Nichol’s 1989 film Working Girl, Melanie Griffiths wears a pair of almost luminously white, box-fresh trainers as she catches the subway in from the ‘burbs to her work as a receptionist in New York; only when she is sat at her desk does she force her feet into the pair of formal, heeled shoes demanded by her station. The rest of the film (as I remember it from a single viewing, more than thirty years ago) revolves around the differences encoded in her public/private working/off-duty footwear and her socially-hobbled and her mobile selves.
Already, only a month or so after these pictures were taken, they start to offer up information about the great heatwave of July 2018 and how people behaved during it. As more time passes, other details will surface and become important: that pair of trainers was only available for three months in Spring 2018; the lino on the central line stopped being dark grey when new carriages were introduced in 2021; I had that exact colour of nail varnish; we thought the summer was so hot back then, before global warming really kicked in…
Men and women wear different types of shoes, although this – like so many other things – has become less starkly binary over the course of my life. There are social codes – which may be falling into abeyance – around shoes: ‘no brown in town’ for workers in the city; ‘no stilettos’ or ‘no trainers’ in nightclubs; some stubborn people may still wear socks with sandals, even if I didn’t spot any.
Then: how comfortable is someone with the limited space they have to occupy? Have they taken care of their feet? Adorned them even? Which normally-hidden tattoos will surface now that it is summer? Can you tell what is being piped into their ears by their phone by looking at their feet?
You can tell a lot about people from looking their feet. Or at any rate that’s the theory. I once got a place on a training scheme because my docs were sticking out at the bottom of my Oxfam suit trousers while I answered the three-person panel’s questions with my feet stretched out in front of me.
I was told later that my success at the interview in part was down to those black Doctor Martens’ Airwear boots signalling that I wasn’t the sort of person who normally wore a suit and that they had liked that subtly conveyed message. I hope I confessed (now it was too late to offer my place to someone else) that I only was wearing a pair of hastily shined-up boots because the heel had come off my good shoes that morning. Knowing me, I probably did.
Encoding and decoding meaning based on someone’s dress can be fraught with all sorts of danger, as both Harrison Ford and Melanie Griffith found out in 1989 and we can still find out, every time we get dressed and go outside into the world. I turned out not to be the sort of person who wore Docs with suits; perhaps someone who was that person would have made more of the opportunity that I was being offered…
larger versions of the individual pictures can be found here
These are brilliant Simon, I love the story about your DM’s !
I think we do make assumptions about people simply by their choice of footwear but as you point out these are not always as clear cut as we might believe. It’s very interesting from a social historical perspective too.