In a comment to “Smiley: Barefoot Australian Boy”, Victor asks:
Watching movies like this, I always ask myself a bitter question: how come that my generation, and myself as a child, were deprived of such a natural and great thing as going barefoot everywhere? Why did all those hangups about bare feet develop?
I have a possible theory.
I think the general perception is that bare feet are not “civilized”.
As the Western World colonized the rest of the world, almost all of the “uncivilized” places they went to had barefoot natives. And that, to them, was the hallmark of not being civilized.
For instance, take a look at this article about the island nation of Tonga having its first free Parliament (under, of course, the “civilized” British Crown):
History is to be made to-day. The nation who solemnly dedicated herself to heaven, whose spirit contrasting with her flat shores has suggested the proverb, “Tonga lofty within,” with whom the great powers are proud to make treaties, holds her first free Parliament to-day. The eyes of the civilized world are upon her. A British ship of war will watch the ceremonial with critical eye, and the captain will describe the scene to Queen Victoria. Therefore must no effort be spared to open Parliament with dignity on the English plan. The day has dawned cloudless and drowsy; the hum of the fleecy breakers on the distant reef, the whispering of the great palm-leaves, and the faint tap of the gatu mallets, vaguely suggest a reverie in a hammock, with no more substantial clothing than a vala; but native garments are unlawful to-day, for Parliaments in civilized lands are not opened in bare legs save in the imagination of Carlyle.
That’s right. Native garments are unlawful for something so “civilized” as a Parliament.
Continuing . . .
For days past the stores on the beach have done a spirited trade in trousers, coats, and shoes — not the sort of shoes that may be bought by the dozen at any boot-maker’s, but majestic fabrics of leather built expressly for the opening of South Sea Parliaments upon a special last fourteen inches long by eight or nine broad. Such shoes as these cannot be used lightly; and so the spiritual guides of the people, when teaching that no self-respecting Tongan should attend church without black coat and trousers, admitted the religious principle that a man might work out his own salvation in bare feet, and the shoes were relegated to the meetings of Parliament.
Did you get that? Bare feet might be, possibly, okay for church, but for a “civilized” Parliament? No way.
[Emphasis added by me. This is from an 1893 article called "The Councils of a Nation" in Blackwood's Magazine.
Here's another example, from a 1840 essay from W. Cooke Taylor at Trinity College, in Dublin ("Towards Discovering the Origin and Course of Human Improvement"). He talks about "indigence", that is, poverty.
Indigence, in a civilized country, is the result of a failure to fulfil the conditions imposed upon social existence. Undoubtedly these conditions are more onerous in proportion to the advance of the state in civilization, but the means of fulfilling them are at least equally multiplied.
He goes on to liken such civilization to repudiating bare feet:
The peasants of England, two centuries ago, like those of Ireland in the present day, went about with bare feet; but an English beggar of modern times is rarely seen without shoes and stockings. The existence which we call miserable, our ancestors would have deemed luxurious, for we have established conditions to social existence of which they never dreamed.
When you are "civilized", bare feet go by the wayside, for they are simply an indication of poverty. My wife's family is Irish, and her aunt was quite anti-barefoot. Their family had escaped the poverty of Ireland, of
which bare feet were a strong indicator. Why would one openly display that signal?
Here is one more example, from India. This is from an 1873 essay by Shoshee Chunder Dutt entitled "Reminiscence of Kerani's life". This is part of Chapter 22, "The Shoe Question Discussed—Some Office-Mates Described." He has obviously been "civilized" by the British.
In the office to which I now belonged, the East-Indian element was very strong, much stronger than the native element, and the new appointments of myself and my friend were regarded by the former class as a poaching on their preserve. The fact is, the Burrá Sáheb who selected us had taken into his head the idea that the work of an Account-office could be done better by natives than by East-Indians, and we were especially selected to give his experiment a trial. The class of natives hitherto in the office belonged to the old school, though there were one or two among them worth more than they passed current for. Of the rest, one instance will suffice.
In going to the Burrá Sáheb, I of course always went with my shoes on. I was surprised one day to find another native assistant, of an equal status with myself, standing before the Huzoor with bare feet. When we both came out, he gave me a lecture on the disrespectfulness of my conduct in not taking off my shoes. I did not, however, see in what the disrespect consisted, and said that to my mind the disrespect was in going in with bare feet. This made him very angry, and he called together a committee of all the old native assistants of the office, who were unanimous in condemning me. I refused, however, to accept this decision.
"Has the Burrá Sáheb ever asked any of you to take off his shoes?"
"No; why should he? or how could he, when we never gave him the opportunity to do so?"
"Is there any order, written or verbal, requiring that shoes should be taken off?"
"None of recent date; but there was such an order in times past."
"Which has now become obsolete?"
"Well, not exactly. People who want to show their respect for the Burrá Sáheb always observe it still."
"It is just there that we differ, my friends. You observe the practice as a mark of respect. That doubtless was the view taken of the matter many years ago, when the order you refer to was passed; but it has long ceased to be so regarded by civilized men. At this day, they regard bare feet as a studied mark of disrespect, and it is for that reason only that we never pull off our shoes now."
"But suppose the Burrá Sáheb were to take notice of your recusancy?"
"Of course if the Burrá Sáheb orders me to take off my shoes, I shall do so. But I don't expect such an order, any more than I expect an order to pull off my trousers; and, in the absence of peremptory orders, I consider it more respectful to keep on both trousers and shoes, and shall continue to do so." They looked daggers at me, but I was not further molested.
[Again, emphasis added by me.]
In the native populations, bare feet were considered a sign of respect. But in the clash of “civilization”, they are not considered respectful. As we’ve seen, that’s the case all over the world.
Bare feet just weren’t seen as civilized. They were considered a sign of backwardness and primitiveness.
But there is a bit of hope. Many such signs of “civilization” have started to fall. This is what a “civilized” group looked like in the 1950s.
Of course, kids in the 1950s, and earlier, didn’t need to be “civilized”. They hadn’t been properly “trained” yet. They didn’t have to be serious yet. But adults needed to show how “civilized” they were. They had to be armored against the elements. And back then, maybe they did. Cars were unreliable (and could easily get flat tires, for instance).
But these days there is really no need. And it is reflected in the fact that men no longer need to wear a suit and tie everywhere (at least if they were, or aspired to be, middle class). Men no longer need to wear a hat. Women no longer need to wear a hat (or gloves!) Men can wear shorts, and sandals, and women can wear, well, pretty much whatever they want. And if any of us, dressed as we usually are (not even necessarily barefoot), shorts, sandals, T-shirts were to suddenly find ourselves in the 1950s, you can be sure we’d be considered “uncivilized”.
So the day may be coming when culture realizing that bare feet are civilized, if we can just be patient. We just need to keep the pressure up; we need to stay out there and let others see us barefooted in situations that we may not be expected to be seen.
And it may just change. Civilized may really come to mean that we control the elements, and don’t let the elements control us. It may really come to mean that we don’t have to be beholden to others to decide for us what works for us. Civilized may really come to mean that surviving alongside nature, instead of in opposition to it, is the hallmark of . . . well . . . civilization.
We’re not done yet.