Fashion in Deformity

You wanna talk about unrealistic standards of beauty portrayed in advertising? Look at these poor suckers’ tiny feet! How can I be expected to compete with that!laver_1861_menAnd it’s not just that the artist didn’t understand how to draw, either. The facial and other bodily proportions are roughly accurate, the mutton chops are full and luscious, and that dog in the background looks like it belongs in an Audubon Field Guide. Then just look at the feet. They barely peek out from under the pants cuff. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that this wasn’t because only dainty-footed men were available to pose for the picture that day but rather that 150 years ago, just like today, advertisements portrayed individuals in a way that would appear ideal to the consumer. These tiny feet were the late 1800’s equivalent of long legs and big eyes photoshopped onto a Macy’s model and as strange as it may sound, it was done for the same reason. And while it’s clear that the tides have now largely turned away from feet and more in the direction of big butts and flat stomachs, we still haven’t entirely lost our love affair with little pointy feet.

Again, there is a big difference in degree between the pointy shoes of the late 1800’s and the average pair of Allen Edmonds that you might come across nowadays, but even those modern shoes still resist the natural shape of the human foot in favor of a narrower, pointier ideal. There are plenty of other trends that attempt to accentuate or conceal certain features but most of these at least make sense from an animalistic, biological perspective; push-up bras, slimming stripe patterns, shoulder pads, and countless other trends are designed to augment one’s natural body shape and encourage the appearance of desirable characteristics. But pointy feet? I suppose that large, broad feet might appear oafish or inelegant, but that’s really the best reason I can think of. No matter the reason, we’ve clung to this ideal for at least a few hundred years and only recently has much real attention been paid to producing a comfortable pointy shoe that won’t deform your feet; which apparently used to be a pretty serious issue until quite recently. Take a look at this comparison between the natural foot and the form that needs to be taken on in order to fit into stylish mens shoes from the turn of the 20th century: Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 11.44.05 AMThe dotted line around picture “B” represents the outline of “an ordinary fashionable boot” and picture “C” shows the change necessary to fit the foot into such a shoe. And here’s another picture of some recorded deformities that have resulted from this practice:Screen Shot 2014-04-29 at 11.44.29 AM I imagine that most Westerners look at a bound foot or an elongated skull and feel happy that they’re not in a culture that promotes such violence against nature, but these pictures seem to suggest otherwise. Plenty of cultures around the world do terrible and confusing things to their bodies in the name of fashion or some other culturally agreed upon standard of beauty. Head binding, neck binding, lip plates, filing teeth, or foot binding are all comparatively extreme examples of this phenomenon and they all share a common goal of changing the natural shape of the human body to fit with a different culturally conceived ideal. While the example of narrow Western mens’ shoes may be a far cry from the old Chinese custom of foot binding, I was nevertheless quite surprised at the deformities that resulted from (and are almost necessary in order to achieve) such an unnatural, biologically-contrary fashion as that depicted above.

Thankfully we’re no longer quite so willing to suffer deformity and mutilation in the name of fashion, but this does still beg the question, “what’s wrong with the shape of the human foot?” Why do we continually try to modify it? Why, even today, are men and women willing to endure painful shoes in the name of having narrower, pointier feet?


The last two illustrations and the title of this post were taken from a book by the same name, which treats this same issue (and many others) in great detail:

Fashion in Deformity: by William Fowler, 1882


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