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… have really interesting cultural implications. What does your footwear say about YOU?
↓ More info + Links! ↓
Natural News from The Field Museum, our new news show!:

More about the Turkish Bathing Clogs:

“Manolo Blahnik: There is nothing charming about a woman who cannot walk in her shoes,” The Guardian 2012:

Special thanks to Alaka Wali for taking the time to chat with us, and to Jamie Kelly and Chris McGarrity for facilitating the shoe loans. Also thanks to Michael Jordan who let us use his shoes for this episode. For real that is a sentence I never thought I’d type.

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We are back here at the Field Museum with Alaka Wali, who is the curator of North American anthropology here, and today we're talking about shoes!

A: Shoes.

E: Why are we talking about shoes? We thought that shoes would be a good way to talk about cultural similarities and cultural differences. For the first pair that we're talking about today, we have a pair of reef shoes, which would've -- what would these have been used for? These were invented by people in the Pacific islands as a way of walking on reefs.

E: Why would somebody be walking on coral reefs?

A: Well, they're looking for fish that they're going to spear, or they're looking for marine life, you know, they're fishermen. They're generally so. So you wouldn't wear these just hanging around town.

E: They serve a very specific function.

A: Right. They serve a very specific function. What we're doing is contrasting them with the snowshoe, which also has a specific function. I think the name gives it away. (laughs)

E: There's so much ingenuity in it.

A: Exactly.

E: And so much craftsmanship.

A: Right.

E: I mean, to go out and to get all of the materials and then to design this and then to make something that actually functioned --

A: Right. And that's also true about the reef shoes because people had to come out with a -- you know, thinking about the materials and then how to make them and all that. I think what this shows you is that wherever people are, they are creative, they try to figure out the right way to make the things that they need for the environment that they live in.

E: So, what are we looking at here?

A: I think it's pretty obvious that these are all sandals. What's interesting here is that the form really hasn't changed in 2,000 years of sandals because these are Egyptian sandals, 2,000 years old --

E: Wow.

A: -- from our collection. These are kids' sandals made probably, who knows, in the 1990s. And then flip-flops. When you think about it, if we're talking about shoes for hot weather climates, this is the shoe.

Why would you change the form if it suits the function, the need? How much variation could you have on a theme, in a way? Exactly.

So these are all children's shoes. Right. No matter where, people want their kids to look good. (laughs) Right?

I mean, look at these with the cute little bows and the beads. This is not useful. I mean, imagine a kid walking.

That's not for use or function. That's just for fashion. I would have tripped.

Right. You know, there is a kind of common concern among people in many cultures around status, pride, and identity, and so I think showing that off in your children and dressing your children through their adornment or through accessorizing clothes --

E: And embellishments. The level of detail that is put into these --

A: Right. This is Cheyenne so this would have been Southern plains, and this is a (indistinct), so that would have been northern. So initially, of course, they didn't have access to beads. Beads came from Europe.

When native peoples here started trading for beads, It had a big impact on their local way of life. And it wasn't just for beads but they traded fur for a lot of things. The beaver pelts were traded and beaver was used by the Europeans to make felt hats -- those big, British felt hats -- and all of that led to all of this massive overkilling of animals impelled by the fur trade.

There's a history there.

E: There's a lot more implications about these shoes than just status and creativity. So, while we're talking about shoes and the implications they have, what are we looking at here? It's about standards of beauty that are determined by men. And that can vary from culture to culture.

Yeah, these are what they called lotus slippers, and so from a young age, a woman's feet would be bound very tightly in order to fit into these. For a size comparison, these are as large as my hand. You know, to be in a family where feet were bound, because not all women in China had their feet bound --

E: Right.

A: Only wealthy women could do it because the consequence was you couldn't walk. What that's saying is you're wealthy enough that you don't have to work. So in a sense it's very ironic because on the one hand, you were wealthy, on the other hand you went through a lot of pain. That's not so different from these, so before we start castigating the Chinese, think about -- these are, what -- Manolo Blahnik shoes today cost, what -- A thousand bucks.

So wealthy women buy these shoes to show their status. But they are also painful. (laughs) I could never wear these. I don't.

I think I own one pair of heels and I regret when I have to wear them. And again, you're putting yourself through a lot of pain to meet a standard of beauty that is determined by men. Let me ask you this.

I know a lot of women in my life that are very self-confident, very empowered women, and their decision to wear clothes like this, their decision to uphold traditional beauty standards, is something that gives them confidence and empowerment. Is there room for both? That's a really, really good question and that gets to the complicated way that human behavior is.

It's not just about, okay, I'm going to do this because the man says to, it's also because they know that they can sometimes flip that narrative, you know. They can wear the shoes and still be empowered, as you say, absolutely. And in the case of the Chinese women, it didn't mean that they were just sitting there doing the bidding of men.

They exerted power, too. Just because times are tough or because someone else is making the rules, people find ways to subvert those rules or overcome those rules, and act on their own behalf. This is our last comparison of the day, but it might be one of the more dramatic.

A: Totally.

E: So what are these?

E: We'll start with these shoes.

A: Okay. Well, so these are shoes, maybe sandals, from the Ottoman Empire. They were made in Turkey. Clearly, again, meant to show the high status, celebrity, if you will, and sort of prestige.

This is for somebody who doesn't have to walk.

E: Right.

A: Doesn't have to work,

A: you know, can work with --

E: Or can work with primarily words and directions.

A: Exactly.

E: Not a lot of manual labor.

A: No manual labor happening in these shoes. But then we're comparing them to these guys. These are my favorite. These are shoes that Michael Jordan himself donated to the Field Museum, or loaned to the Field Museum for our exhibition.

So obviously Michael Jordan is a major player (pun intended) in sports history but also in the Chicago region. And so what was the reason for wanting to have these on display compared to impractical shoes of a Turkish diplomat? The notion that status and celebrity is there in many different cultures, especially cultures where there is stratification, if you will, where there's class, or economic differences, and showing off your status is important.

But there's differences. So in Michael Jordan's case, he attained his celebrity status by being the best athlete in the world. He and the Chicago Bulls of his time changed the image of Chicago.

That kind of celebrity status had an impact, just as perhaps the person who wore these shoes and made decisions for the Ottoman Empire had an impact. The image of Chicago, if you think about it, before the Bulls of the Jordan era, if you said you're from Chicago, they would say, "Oh, Al Capone!" "The gangsters!" You know, that's what Chicago was associated with. Then after Michael Jordan, and you said you were from Chicago, they were like, "Oh, Michael Jordan!" He became world-renowned.

That's pretty amazing. That's pretty impactful. Pretty interesting to know that we can have all these thoughts and ideas based off of their footwear.

Hey, thanks for watching this episode of The Brain Scoop! This is gonna be our last episode for the year and I wanted to say thanks to everybody who responded to our survey. We got a ton of really great responses and so we're really gonna take that to heart and stay tuned for more episodes in the new year.

Have a great break. the brain scoop is made possible by the field museum and the Harris family foundation. It still has brains on it