When people make shoes, they make them by stretching leather (or other material) over a form, called a “last”. The idea is that the last is a model, or proxy, for the human foot, but one made of a material that will withstand the stretching, hammering, tacking and hard work needed to form leather into shoes. Usually, lasts are made from wood, or metal. One of the problems with lasts is that you have to make allowance for the fact that you have to get the last out of the finished shoe. For that reason, the last is a compromise. It doesn’t look like a foot at all. It’s a simplified model of a foot, which is slippery enough and eased enough to take back out of the shoe, once the shoe is made.
When a shoe maker creates a last, they are making choices and decisions about the shape that the foot inside the shoes will have to conform to. They can leave some extra room, so that the shoe doesn’t exactly conform to the last, but it’s a matter of judgement how much room will be left and what ultimate shape the inside of the shoe will be. Whether or not your foot can fit comfortably inside that shoe is down to the skill of the shoe maker and the size and shape of the last he used. Unsurprisingly, the shape of the inside of many shoes looks more like a last, with its idealised simplifications and banana shaped form (all designed to release the shoe from the last), than it resembles a human foot. Your toes are squashed up and the sides of your feet compressed. Your Achilles tendon is made to fold, in a hinge like way, over the edge of the back of your shoe, rather than to follow its natural path of extension and compression.
The main concerns, when fashioning a last with which to make shoes, is to permit the shoes to look stylish (and therefore be saleable in a fashion-obsessed world), provide a strong enough form to take the rigours of shoemaking and to allow the shoe to be released from the last, once finished. There is little or no consideration given to the bone structures of the foot, muscle tensions while standing and walking, weight bearing points, the flexibility required for walking, the balance of the human standing on their feet inside the shoe and the movement of the foot that will be required. Still less consideration is given for proper ventilation of the foot or for its comfort. Those factors are all afterthoughts, if they are considered at all. In women’s shoes, these factors are seemingly deliberately eschewed. The last is a sort of sculpture representing a foot, all right, but a highly simplistic one, not necessarily fit for function.
If you scale up the production of shoes based on a pattern of a last that has so little consideration for the real functions of the foot, which is more concerned with an idealisation of what a foot should be, then you wind up with millions of people whose feet must conform to this fantasy version of the foot’s shape. In the process of forcing their bones and muscles into the shape and space available inside the shoes patterned after this fantasy foot, millions of people suffer pain and discomfort for as much as a third of their lives. A significant proportion will sustain permanent injuries and deformities, from wearing these shoes for such long periods of time. In extreme cases, if the injury combines unhappily with some other conditions, such as diabetes, the result can be permanent disability, amputation or even death, due to septic ulcers and gangrene brought about by excessive rubbing of the foot against the inside of the shoe. The decisions made about the last, the pattern, and how this influences the shape and function of the inside of the shoe can have lasting, drastic consequences.
And yet nobody questions the pattern. It’s as if there are no other possibilities. People make assumptions that the last was fashioned with such wisdom and science, that the best possible shoes result. They don’t consider if new technologies make other ways of forming shoes possible. The guesswork that is required to ease the shoe from the last and leave enough room for real feet cannot, is appears, be improved upon. Nobody, it seems, questions the assumptions and priorities baked permanently into the original pattern and the pattern propagates, down through time, for literally centuries. Each last is merely a copy of previous lasts, with all the same compromises and mistaken priorities passed down, in a meme-like way, to all subsequent generations of shoes and shoe makers. Pervasive patterns last, just as lasts become pervasive patterns. Indeed, Chinese foot binding was practiced for centuries, crippling countless young Chinese girls for the sake of appearances, before it finally began to be considered inhumane and the practice eventually began to disappear.
All it takes is for one artist to break the mould and change the pattern, for a new pattern to prevail. How many pervasive patterns can you identify in your particular branch of artistic endeavour? If you are realistic and paying attention, I think you’ll find that there are all sorts of traditions, once based on fashion decisions, that come down to us as received wisdom. The assumptions built into those traditions might have zero relevance today. For example, the wearing of bearskins by Grenadier guards was once thought to make the soldier appear much taller and more fearsome, in hand to hand combat. In those days, bears were considered expendable and enemies gullible. Those ideas have no currency today, yet the bearskin is still worn by Grenadier guards on parade. Why? Break those traditions. Rethink the assumptions. Subvert pervasive, persistent patterns that no longer serve us well, or which never did, due to a distortion of priorities and a willingness to turn a blind eye to the often obvious shortcomings and limitations.
Meanwhile, I look forward to the day when shoemakers change their habits and produce shoes that actually fit the human foot and preserve its dynamic qualities, without limiting them or unrealistically demanding that the foot change to fit the shoe. If, as an artist, you are an upholder of a pervasive pattern, that you don’t really understand the reasoning behind, or which you are prepared to propagate, knowing that the wrong criteria have been given prominence, then you are a part of the pattern we all need to change.
If the shoe fits…