Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis! Times change and we change with them. Our feet do the same. Sometimes they are small, sometimes large, sometimes pointed, sometimes wide. And so the shoemaker sometimes makes small, sometimes large, sometimes pointed, sometimes wide shoes.
Of course, the form of our feet does not change from season to season. That often requires several centuries, at the very least a generation. A large foot cannot get smaller at the snap of the finger. Here the other clothing artists have it easier. Wide waistlines, narrow waistlines, broad shoulders, narrow shoulders, and so much else—changes can be easily made by means of a new cut, cotton padding, and other aids. But the shoemaker must adhere closely to the form which the foot has at the particular moment. If he wants to introduce the small shoe, he must wait patiently until the race of men with large feet has become extinct.
Adolf Loos, Neue Freie Presse, August 7, 1898
I’ve long been frustrated by my large wide feet. It’s hard to find decent shoes, and when I do manage to find things in wider widths they are frequently in the form of really garish brightly colored tennis shoes. It’s irritating, to say the least. Adolf Loos’s thoughts on the matter were of great interest to me, particularly since he highlights the possibility, comic as it is, that social and technological changes may indeed inevitably change our appearance, not just because of fashion but also because of our work, and pastimes.
Recently the revival of Germanic culture has again made riding respectable. All those who thought and felt modern in the last century bought English riding shoes and boots, even if they did not own a horse. The riding boot was the symbol of the free man, who had won a final victory over the buckled shoe, the air of the court, and the glistening parquet floor. Feet still remained small, but the high heel, useless for the horseback rider, was left behind. The whole of the following century, our century, that is, was taken up with the pursuit of the smallest possible foot.
But in the course of this century the human foot began to undergo a change. Our social circumstance made it necessary for us to walk more quickly each year. Saving time meant saving money. Even the most elegant circles, people who had plenty of time, were caught up in it and accelerated their pace. The normal gait of a vigorous pedestrian of today matches that of the footman running in front of the carriages of the last century. It would be impossible for us to walk as slowly as people did in earlier times. We are too nervous for that.
When I moved from California to Arkansas I was utterly shocked with the change in walking pace. I found myself routinely walking straight into automatic doors, because in the south they actually opened more slowly than they did in California. I had no idea that there were such profound regional differences in gait. I’ve slowed down a lot, after years in the South and the Midwest, and I must say I’m much happier for it. Curiously though, now that I live in New York, I find that I walk far too slow for many folks around here. Oh well, I’m comfortable with it and don’t feel much need to keep up with the New Yorkers. I can pick up the pace, if it causes a traffic hazard, but I’ve found that if you slow down you see more, and enjoy life more.
I can see the impact of social custom, to be sure, but I find it a bit difficult to buy into the idea that walking paces are altered by technology. Nonetheless, Loos’s essay moves from the impact on the transition from walking, to horseback, to mountain climbing, to the latest social catalyst: the bicycle.
The bicyclist is the mountain climber of the plains. That is why he dresses like the climber. He does not need high boots and long pants. He wears pants that are wide around the knee, ending beneath it in cuffs on top which are folded-over stockings are worn. (They are folded over in both Scotland and the Alps so that they will not slip down the leg.) In this way the leg has enough free-play underneath the pants so that it is possible to go from a stretched-out leg position to a bent-knee position unimpeded. Incidentally, let me mention here that there are individuals in Vienna who do not at all understand the purpose of the cuffs and who pull their stockings up underneath their cuffs. They make the same comical impression as do the many false natives who render the mountains unsafe every summer in the Alps.
For footwear, the bicyclist wears laced-up shoes like the mountaineer. Shoes with laces will dominate the next century just as riding boots dominated this century. The English have discovered the direct transition; they still wear both kinds today. But we have put out a hideous hybrid for the transitional period: the ankle boot. The most unpleasant thing about the appearance of the ankle boot became obvious when short pants came in. It was clear immediately: one could not wear ankle boots without the beneficent camouflage of long pants. . . .
Most of the Loos’s contemporaries (that I’ve located, at least) are far more concerned with women’s bicycle fashions rather than men’s. For men, exposed ankles mean the death of ankle boots, but for women, there’s another side effect: a new female body part to evaluate, as noted in a Chicago Sun article from May 30, 1897. It takes a city by city tour, offering illustrations and commentary on women’s ankles from various cities.
As you are all so well aware, Boston for her intellectuals, and no more than a cursory glance at this really attractive view, which the artist has appropriately labeled “A Pair of Spectacles,” will show to any one that there is far more of the psychical than the physical in what we now have before us. There is a delicate grace and refinement limned upon the canvas, so to speak, that is as transcendental in its esoteric concept of the metempsychosis of a plate of beans as there is in the sacred codfish that flutters its ichthyological tail over the dome of the State House.
In the next column of the large format newsprint there is a similarly slender, and stylish write-up of Chicago. Directly above that, and as a foil for the obviously attractive Chicago ankles, is Albany, New York:
To one who in love of nature holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language, as a rule, but in this instance she doesn’t say a word but “hills, hills, hills,” and adds a cuss word now and then, not only for the labor involved, but for the unbeautiful results of the wheel in daily use. We can imagine from what we have seen here how Hendrik Hudson must have looked when he got out of his boat and walked up the bank to see what kind of country his posterity would have to live in. Had Gretchen Hudson been there then she would have simply said “Oh papa!” and made the old gentlemen go West until he struck the level.
Obviously, this Chicago writer didn’t see larger feet and ankles as being attractive. I suspect having odd-sized extremities has long been a source of humor. Small hands on men are as taboo as large feet on women.
One suspects that Loos’s attitude was satiric:
In fashionable circles feet are no longer as small as they used to be because of pedestrian activity. They are constantly increasing in size. The big feet of English men and women no longer summon up our mockery. We too climb mountains, have bicycles, and—horrible dictu—now have acquired English feet. But, let’s take comfort. The beauty of the small foot is slowly beginning to fade, especially for men. Recently, I received a letter from America with a description of Rigo; it ended by saying “A pair of revoltingly small feet! That sounds convincing. The new teaching begins in America: revoltingly small feet! Holy Clauren, if you had only lived to experience it! You, whose heroes could never have small enough feet to appear as paragons of noble manhood in the visions and dreams of a hundred thousand German girls! Tempora Mutantur. . .
Loos’s article caused a stir, apparently, and he responded to it in a follow-up article. It wasn’t the thought that the size of feet would be changing that bothered people, but because it was seen as professing the end of ankle boots and the ascendancy of lace-up shoes. Like the loden hat, the ankle boot was seen as the “national shoe” of Austria. The witty conclusion of that article merits saving:
Our minds may be set at rest. We Austrians will be able to step out smartly in our shoes in the upcoming century. And good shoes will be necessary in the next century because we are going to be on the march. The American Walt Whitman, the greatest Germanic poet since Goethe, has seen this century with prophetic eye. He sings:
Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
No, we are not standing still, old Walt Whitman. The ancient Germanic blood still flows in our veins, and we are ready to march forward. We will do our best to help change the world of sitters and standers into a world of work and marching.
Neue Freie Presse, August 14, 1898
When I read this, I immediately thought of Frank Zappa’s piece “America Drinks and Goes Marching,” but there isn’t the time and space to discuss that today.