Fashion plays an enormously influential role in our lives, often involving and affecting our health physically, emotionally, psychologically and psycho-sexually. Fashion has been with us since earliest civilization, even before, because it serves a vital role by feeding two of human nature’s most powerful motivating forces: status and sex attraction.
Today no less than in primitive times, fashion enables to establish visible distinctions of class, rank, wealth and authority.
Its history is marked by a tradition or process of adding to/propping the body to architecturise it or taking away part of it, sometimes both. That very process has/d the effect to not just transform but often permanently deform the natural human body and inherently shape its identity.
Of all the body’s parts the foot has long been perhaps the most commonly and consistently subjected to deliberate deformation. And our shoes, from very ancient times, have been the prime instrument of pedic deformation.
Pablo Bronstein and the Treasures of Chatsworth installation shot. Photo Andy Keate.
Some 10,000 years ago tribal chieftains wore stilts when addressing the tribal mass. The stilts allowed the wearer to ‘look down’ and the others to ‘look up’ to the leader with an instant affect of increasing physical stature and authority.
The platform shoe dates back to the sixth century BC, introduced by Aeschylus, the Greek dramatist, who used it for his actors on stage. The higher the platform the more important the actor and his role.
Pointed toe shoes date back 3,000 years to ancient Egypt: upper caste women wore them to make the foot look smaller and more slender to distinguish it from the wide splayed foot of common folk and slave women who toiled in the fields. Because the foot was required to adapt to the unnatural shape of the shoe, the deformed foot and shoe themselves became a mark of status.
The bound foot custom of China began 1,000 years ago and continued for a millennium. The process misshaped and shrunk the foot to doll size. The young boundfoot women achieved elitist status and were regarded as the sex goddesses of the culture. Even their fragile, precarious gait, known as the “willow walk” became a symbol of sensual status.
In Europe, The “chopine” fashion of the 14th century was the dominant mode of the upper caste women. This was an extremist platform-type shoe raging in height from six to 30 inches. A natural step on them was impossible. The wearer often required a maid on either side to ensure balance and security. The higher the chopine, the higher the status of the wearer.
One of the most used ways to both escape the common class and convey status is through impracticality. The upper classes have always relied on the impractical, the uncomfortable, even debilitating to announce their privileged status.
Psychologist J.C. Flugel states, “the final form of body decoration is body deformation. It is the crown jewel of personal status and sex attraction.”
He asserts that men and women tolerate very well any physical distress caused by revisions of body form if it is done within the framework of social approval and admiration. Such practices are not only tolerated but eagerly sought after demonstrating a merging of pleasure and pain.
Those practices are as contemporary as ever.
Everybody, everywhere, does something to their body to alter its shape or look.
Why? To communicate who they wish to appear to be, be recognised and be desired by the other.
The desire for individuality, status and sexual attraction has the effect ultimately to force the body into stillness – objectify it to fulfil the fantasy of another.
So, where does that insatiable desire to objectify self stem from?
Jacques Lacan, a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist from 20th century, says that the wish to be the object of another’s desire is deeply rooted in our infantile experience of being utterly dependant on the Mother; and recognition is the prerequisite to having our needs and wishes met by the other.
Lacan locates the development of desire in the “mirror stage” of infancy; he argues that the discrepancy between the child’s self and his representation (the image reflected back on him by the mother) is the trigger for desire, and leaves him endlessly lacking. It sets him off in pursuit of what ultimately proves an elusive goal - to be rendered complete as one imagines having felt during infancy.
Here the marble foot looked upon as symbol of beauty, taste and culture, becomes the symbol for perpetual masochist practices leading to severe permanent body deformation. Here, the foot comes to encapsulate human’s contradictions: a craving for individuality and a desperate need to belong;a desire to be truly seen while making oneself fit within the tight objectifying frame of another’s aesthetic; a desire to know the self and know the other versus an inability to recognise, tolerate and value individuals’ innate differences.