Book Review – Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers

As an unabashed dilettante, this is precisely the kind of fashion book that appeals to me: broad in concept, rife with details about niche topics, and lushly illustrated with highly saturated colour photos and antique illustrations of the dreamiest, most audacious shoes I will never wear. It looks like a coffee-table book, but the essays are academic in tone, so you can feed your smarts and your eyeballs in a single go.

The collection chronicles the development of (mostly western) footwear, zooming in on specific moments and cultures in fashion history to deliver a broad genesis of the modern shoe and our attitudes toward it. The fantastically illustrated essays present snapshot perspectives on shoes as symbols, as aesthetic phenomena, as bearers of status or power, and as material things that must be put together with the resources and technologies available, yet still conform to the mores, fashions, and cultural constraints of their times. The topics vary widely, bouncing from, say, the evolution of 19th-century army boots to the rhetoric of sneakers to accounts of the sumptuary laws restricting platform heights in the middle ages. My sole complaint is the western, highly Eurocentric bias of the book’s historical arc. While there are a few essays on other cultures’ shoes, these felt more like a genuflection toward cosmopolitan internationalism than an earnest attempt to figure a truly global account. Otherwise, though, I’m a big fan; it’s a great primer on shoe history, and the illustrations truly are drool-worthy. Now, the really pressing question is, how am I going to secure myself a nice satiny pair of 15th-century pianelles in time for the weekend…

Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil (Eds.), Berg, 2006
reviewed by Emily Raine (originally published in Worn Fashion Journal Issue 8 )

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