Sho es and the wor ld

Our footwear re­veals more than our taste in style and per­son­al­ity. They also mir­ror the de­vel­op­ment of so­ci­ety.

Plaza Uomo UK - - Contents - BY Jesper ingevalds­son

Jesper Ingevalds­son thinks that our choice of footwear re­veals more than our taste in style and per­son­al­ity.

I’m stand­ing in the base­ment of a cobblers in the Swedish city of Borås. The owner Jör­gen Stål­born and I are in­spect­ing a punch press. This enor­mous ma­chine had to be lifted into the build­ing by a crane be­fore the floor of the room above could be laid down. It was in 1932, the same year the shoe­mak­ers was opened by Jör­gen’s great grand­fa­ther Leander Holm. The press was used to pun­chout leather soles for the shoes made by Leander and his col­leagues, a common prac­tice among shoe­mak­ers around Swe­den in the first half of the 20th cen­tury. Ro­bust, welted and hand-stitched shoes were worn by the common man, who took ex­treme care to en­sure their shoes lasted as long as pos­si­ble. Rather than re­plac­ing them at the first sign of wear and tear, the shoes were brought back to the cob­bler sev­eral times to have the sole re­paired or re­placed, be­fore fi­nally, it was time to or­der a new pair. At its peak, Hojs em­ployed thir­teen shoe­mak­ers and, dur­ing the 1950s, there were over fifty shoe­mak­ers in Borås alone. Footwear was hard cur­rency.

While cord­wain­ers like th­ese made footwear worn by the av­er­age man, the de­tails of the shoes re­vealed the so­cial class of its owner, es­pe­cially in the early 1900s. Af­flu­ent men wore be­spoke pairs with ul­tra thin soles and flat fronts. This served to dis­play the owner’s wealth by show­ing that there was lit­tle need for him to walk any­where; he was free to sit in the salon of his grand house, en­joy­ing a glass of co­gnac while watch­ing the world go by. Women, on the other hand, wore prac­ti­cal shoes in the home and pret­tier ver­sions in pub­lic. As the skirts were cut shorter, the ap­pear­ance of women’s shoes be­came more im­por­tant. And much like men, women took great care in look­ing after them.

This tra­di­tion went out the win­dow in the 1960s and 70s. Free cap­i­tal­ism, in­creased con­sump­tion and glob­al­i­sa­tion saw mass-pro­duced glue sole ver­sions flood the footwear in­dus­try. Only a hand­ful of cord­wain­ers re­mained in Borås. Among them was Hojs, who by then had been forced to give up mak­ing shoes, just like their com­peti­tors. Vir­tu­ally all Swedish shoe pro­duc­tion had ceased.

The trend con­tin­ued in the 80s and 90s, when qual­ity shoes were aban­doned in favour of sneak­ers, fake leather pumps and fab­ric plim­solls – all made in Asia. Noone minded that they only lasted a sea­son since they were so cheap. It was throw­away cul­ture at its peak.

In­creas­ing gen­der equal­ity also meant that there was lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween the type of shoes worn by men and those worn by women. Coun­tries such as Eng­land and Italy still val­ued qual­ity shoe­mak­ing, but even th­ese na­tions bore wit­ness to a shrink­ing in­dus­try.

Then with the new mil­len­nia, cli­mate change and fi­nan­cial cri­sis topped the news agenda. Peo­ple be­came in­creas­ingly aware of the en­vi­ron­ment, sus­tain­abil­ity and longevity, of the fu­ture for their chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. It wasn’t long be­fore qual­ity shoes re-en­tered the scene.

In the last ten years, the pub­lic in­ter­est in tra­di­tion­ally man­u­fac­tured footwear has grown dra­mat­i­cally. They make up a large share of the shoes on the shelves in Hojs and Jör­gen tells us the sales of Crock­ett and Jones et al. has quadru­pled. All in­dus­try ex­perts I’ve spo­ken to echo this mes­sage.

But the sus­tain­abil­ity trend is far from in­clu­sive. In­di­vid­u­al­ism has never been as prom­i­nent; there’s now more choice avail­able than ever be­fore. By that I don’t mean it was bet­ter in the olden days. Peo­ple wore qual­ity shoes and looked after them with such care be­cause they had to. Dur­ing the 80s and 90s it was more or less the same thing, just flipped on its head; throw­away items were all that was avail­able to con­sumers. Just like us, shoes are a child of their time.

“IN THE 1950s, THERE WERE OVER FIFTY SHOE­MAK­ERS IN BORÅS.”

Jesper Ingevalds­son runs the shoe blog: www.shoegaz­ing.se.

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