I happened across an interesting book, The Unfashionable Human Body, by Bernard Rudofsky (originally published in 1971). It mainly concerns the many ways we cover or modify our bodies, and as part of that it has a section on footwear.
I thought folks might find part of that interesting.
The first thing he says is that in the late 1800s, people didn’t think it was arches that needed support, but ankles:
Every generation has its own demented ideas on supporting some part of the human anatomy. Older people still remember a time when everybody went through life ankle-supported. Young and old wore laced boots. A shoe that did not reach well above the ankle was considered disastrous to health. What, one asks, has become of ankle support, once so warmly recommended by doctors and shoe salesmen? What keeps our ankles from breaking down these days of low-cut shoes?
But then he goes on to the silliness of arch supports.
Ankle support has given way to arch support; millions of shoe-buying people are determined to “preserve their metatarsal arch” without as much as suspecting that it does not exist. Nevertheless, the fiction of the arch is being perpetuated to help sell “supports” and “preservers” on an impressive scale.
The dread of falling arches is, however, a picayune affair compared to that other calamity, the feet’s asymmetry. I am not talking about the difference within a single pair of feet, that is, the difference between the right and left foot of a person; I mean the asymmetry of the foot itself.
He also observes how shoes deform the feet, and how “civilization” seems to consider normal feet, that is, bare feet, as counter to progress.
By some atavistic quirk of nature, every normal baby is born with undeformed feet. The forepart of the foot—measured across the toes—is about twice as wide as the heel. The toes barely touch each other and are as nimble as fingers. Were the child able to keep up his toe-twiddling, he might easily retain as much control over his feet as over his hands. Not that we see anything admirable in nimble toes; they strike us as freakish perhaps because we associate prehensile feet with primitive civilizations. To our twisted mind, the foot in its undamaged state is anachronistic, if not altogether barbaric. Ever since the shoe became the badge of admission to Western civilization—in rural countries such as Portugal and Brazil the government exhorts peasants to wear shoes in the name of progress—we look down on barefooted or sandaled nations.
Shoes make the feet:
Since wearing shoes is synonymous with wearing bad shoes, the modern shoe inevitably becomes an instrument of deformation. The very concept of the modern shoe does not admit of an intelligent solution; it is not made to fit a human foot but to fit a wooden last whose shape is determined by the whims of the “designer.”
In both the manufacturer’s and the customer’s opinion the shoe comes before the foot. It is less intended to protect the foot from cold and dirt than to mold it into a fashionable shape. Infants’ very first shoes are liable to dislocate the bones, and bend the foot into the shoe shape. The child does not mind the interference; “never expect the child to complain that the shoe is hurting him,” says podiatrist Dr. Simon Wikler, “for the crippling process is painless.” According to a ten-year study of the Podiatry Society of the State of New York, 99 percent of all feet are perfect at birth, 8 percent have developed troubles at one year, 41 percent at the age of five, and 80 percent at twenty; “we limp into adulthood,” the report concludes. “Medical schools,” says Dr. DePalma, “fail almost completely in giving the student a sound grounding and a sane therapeutic concept of foot conditions.” And in Military Medicine one reads that “there has been no objective test that could be readily incorporated in physical examinations, or taught to medical students, pediatricians, or physicians in military and industrial medicine, that would enable them to recognize deformities of the foot . . .” In sum, physicians leave it to the shoe designer to decide the fate of our feet.
That’s right. Shoes are not really there to protect against cold and dirt, but to be fashionable.
And herewith is his conception, drawn for him by Bernard Pfriem, of what shoe designers really wished feet looked like.
Yup. That’s what they think feet are supposed to look like.