January 26, 2012
toe to type
What connects a head to a toe? The human being in between. They say that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their shoes, and leading that line of thought is the shape of the toe.
Pointed toes still carry connotations of aristocracy. The French Revolution all but ended the era of men wearing pointed pumps. Men renounced fashion and leisure and adopted more practical clothing that emphasized the worthiness of work. As such, the pointed toe – like most features that are considered more fashionable than practical – is considered the most feminine toe shape.
The only time pointed toes are considered masculine in modernity is when they are equestrian – the classic cowboy boot’s point is meant to make sliding into stirrups simpler. It’s indicative that points are better for riding than walking.
Off the saddle, the pointed toe is the most impractical. It crushes the toes together and causes health problems. The extension to the length of the foot leaves the toe vulnerable to wear – pointed toes only really look good fresh out of the box. They’re not for working in, in either sense. Today they are considered the domain of high-maintenance women and dandified men. Points really offend some people.
Economically, pointed toes tend to come into fashion when times are good, perhaps too good. In 20th century, points were in vogue at the turn, and again in the 20s, the 50s and 60s, and the 80s.
Points are about extremes – a shoe celebrating individuality, materialism, hierachy and sexual distinctions – they symbolize conservative values without being conservative about it.
Round toe shoes, on the other foot, are proletariat. Round toes are for working in, in both senses. If you look on any menswear forum, the overwhelming consensus is that a round toe is the only sartorially acceptable, masculine choice. Any other toe is considered too try-hard for modern man.
The military boot, the trainer, the ballet flat – the round toes are task-driven by design, but well-rounded in terms of versatility. Being the most practical shoe, they’re common in all senses of the word and worn by ordinary people by default, whatever the trends of the time happen to be. They’re as ubiquitous as Ugg5 and Cr0cs. Still, they’re just as almost as abstract a shape as points or squares, not echoing anatomy. Anatomically-inspired footwear that echoes the bare foot – shoes with articulated toes or thong sandals – are considered either very casual or very weird.
Round toes tend to be popular in hard times – in the 20th century they were worn in the 30s, 40s, 70s, and late 90s. They remain the most current style at the present moment, despite occasional glossy proclamations that round is over, points have failed to gain much more than a niche toehold in this century.
Square toes occupy a bizarre middle ground. Perhaps the least anatomical of all shoe points, they seem to exist in the neither-world between the binary of round and pointed.
Henry VIII is the most famous square-toed king, and favoured a look considered sporty at the time. The blunt foot was a reaction to the Medieval popularity of super-extreme pointed shoes after they were banned by Henry IV. By the time of Good King Hal the square toe was almost as ridiculous as the preceding “Poulaine” points – “bear paws” or “bags” described shoes that could be as wide as 6″ at the toe.
The other famous square toe – the pilgrim’s buckled shoe – is a modern myth. When the Mayflower made its trans-Atlantic voyage in 1620, buckles on shoes were unknown (in London, Pepys’ diary records his own adoption of buckles in 1660) and what evidence exists of what the pilgrims wore indicates that the men wore round shoes and the women wore points.
More recently, square toes were briefly trendy in the late 1980s and early 1990s – which is where they acquired that lingering taint of distaste reserved for too-recent fads. Today, wearing square toes reveals that you are either unaware, or don’t care about fashion. They seem to be considered acceptable to wear in middle-class offices. Perhaps more so so in places like the civil service where employees are reluctant to wear their personal politics on their sleeves – or their feet.
The square toe represents equivocation or hegemony. It is a style non-statement.
Personally, I have always worn round toes my entire life, and own just one pair of almond-shaped toes which have as much of a point as I can handle. What do you wear?