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