20.03.2020

FOLLOW FEET, NOT FASHION

Most shoes look nothing like the feet they cover. Which is odd. Because if we take away the shoes, our feet are functionally still the same, and this hasn’t changed for the last few millennia. What has changed, however, is what we wrap our feet in.

If we go right back to the beginning, early homo sapiens - and the Neanderthals - were already tanning and working leather to cover their feet[i]. Fast-forward somewhat and it's when fashion overtakes function that the shape of shoes starts to seriously deviate from foot-shape. So much so that in the last few centuries, trends in shoe design have even distorted our idea of what the foot itself should look like. Bonkers shoe shapes have become fashionable, even normalized, and this may be to the detriment of our feet and, ultimately, healthy human movement.

The traditional shoe shape as we recognise it today was originally designed as a boot with pointed toe box to allow feet to slide easily into horse stirrups and then a heel block to stop them sliding too far. Back in the day, the shape and quality of a gentleman’s boots were a pretty good indicator that his equestrian skills were up to scratch and that he had a decent ride hitched up outside. 

For women, having delicate, dainty feet meant social status and so their footwear followed suit; the material, height and shape of the shoe dictated how a woman could move, as well as how much of her body she revealed.

These days not many of us commute to work on a horse, and women actually need to get around, so it seems more than little odd that these designs are still the basis for the vast majority of the 23 billion pairs of shoes made each year[ii]: a heel of some form, as well as a pointed or roundedtoe. 

Fashion has dictated our feet to the point where so many feet are now shaped like shoes instead of feet. Women - more likely to wear narrower, pointier shoes - are four times more likely to have painful, debilitating foot problems than men, highlighting the painful reality of the shoe-shaped environment we force our feet into. But it's not just women's sky-high heels that are at fault - any kind of heel throws our body off balance. And this affects growing children even more than adults: the 2cm heel (like on some of the world's best-selling sneakers) is the equivalent of a 5cm heel on an adult[iii]. And you´d hardly put your kid in high heels, would you?

Our feet adapt to the environment they’re repeatedly being stuffed into; fashion has overtaken function, normal is no longer natural. Result? Our feet and bodies suffer. 

Just comparing western, shoe-shaped feet to the feet of people who never wear shoes highlights what fashion can do. Kids who grow up barefoot have stronger, wider feet and present with fewer cases of flat feet than kids who regularly wear shoes[iv][v]. Barefoot kids have also been shown to score better on balance and motor skills than their shod counterparts[vi]

Shoe-shaped designs still even influence the design of sports shoes – trainers, sneakers, kicks or whatever you chose to call them! – since they became fashionable from the 1970’s, and our feet have continued to be bent out of shape.

It’s entirely possible that a lifetime of normal cushioned, padded shoes might be helping create the compromised feet that then send people hobbling to expensive orthotics ‘solutions’. We’re not the only ones piping up about this. There have been voices trying to turn the tide of increasingly shoe-shaped feet for hundreds of years; but it seems like each time, fashion wins.

In the 1700’s a Dutch naturalist, anthropologist and anatomist described the shoes of his day as ‘instruments of torture’, while in the 1850’s James Clark of Clarks shoes designed his ‘hygienic boots and shoes’ on ‘anatomical principles’ to make ‘walking a pleasure.’ In 1905, a doctor called Phil Hoffman published a study into the feet of indigenous people who never wore shoes and concluded in footwear, fashion ‘has a greater influence than reason’[vii]

It wasn't until the early 2000’s that the shape of shoes started to kick into public consciousness again. One of the biggest shoe companies in the world heard about Stanford athletes training barefoot on the university golf course, and they started experimenting with barefoot characteristics for a stripped-back, more minimalist shoe. 

Meanwhile in the UK a young design student, and often-injured tennis player, kept rolling his ankles over the edge of his squishy conventional sports shoes. He took to his soles with a bread knife, cutting them off and replacing them with the thin layer from his tennis racket cover. With his cobbling shoe friend, Galahad Clark (and founder of Vivobarefoot), they went one step further, realising that the perfect shoe wasn’t just about being foot shaped, but that it also needed a thin sole.

This is because our feet have the same number of nerve-endings as our hands, they are supposed to feel: feet are the ultimate movement sensors, creating a vital sensory feedback loop between feet, body and brains. Feet are our base of support as well as the foundation for our movement; they need to flex, splay and recoil, using all their muscles and tendons to keep our movements healthy, natural and injury free.

Millions of years of R&D have packed our feet with all the technology we need: our feet are an awesome gift of evolution.

This is why at Vivobarefoot we make as little shoe as possible so your feet can do their natural thing. Follow your feet, not fashion, for natural, healthy movement that can last you a lifetime. 

[i] Switek, B. As fashion week ends, pondering the origins of clothes, National Geographic, September 2013. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/9/130911-neanderthal-fashion-week-clothes/ 

[ii] World Footwear, August 2016. https://www.worldfootwear.com/news/worldwide-footwear-production-reached-230-billion-pairs-in-2015/1817.html

[iii] Rossi, W. Launching Site for Adult Ills, Podiatry Management, October 2002.

[iv] Stolwijk NM, Duysens J, Louwerens JW, van de Ven YH, Keijsers NL. Flat feet, happy feet? Comparison of the dynamic plantar pressure distribution and static medial foot geometry between Malawian and Dutch adults. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e57209.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23468936

[v] Hollander K, de Villiers JE, Sehner S, et al. Growing-up (habitually) barefoot influences the development of foot and arch morphology in children and adolescents. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):8079.
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-07868-4#ref-CR4 

[vi] Hollander K, van der Zwaard B, de Villiers JE, et al. The effects of growing up habitually barefoot on foot mechanics and motor performance in children and adolescents. Journal of Foot and Ankle Research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5010736/

[vii]Hoffman, P. Conclusions drawn from a comparative study of the feet of barefooted and shoe-wearing peoples. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. October, 1905.
https://journals.lww.com/jbjsjournal/Abstract/1905/03020/CONCLUSIONS_DRAWN_FROM_A_COMPARATIVE_STUDY_OF_THE.1.aspx

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