Skip to main content

Distributed for Reaktion Books


The Meaning of Style

Distributed for Reaktion Books


The Meaning of Style

Today, buying shoes, wearing shoes, and collecting shoes is for many of us a habit that borders on fetish. Shoe lover or not, we all make choices every day about which shoes to wear. But why do we choose the footwear we do?

In Shoes: The Meaning of Style, Elizabeth Semmelhack explores the history of shoes and how different types of footwear have come to say varying things about the people who wear them. Organized around four main shoe types—boots, sneakers, high heels, and sandals—the book explains their origins, the impact of technology on how shoes are produced and worn, and explores their designs, describing how shoes now have social meaning far beyond their use to protect the foot. She considers how some footwear has been used to protect power structures and perpetuate cultural values, while other footwear has been worn in protest of prevailing cultural norms despite simultaneously being an unabashed product of consumer capitalism. Along the way, Semmelhack reveals the scandals, successes, and obsessions of the designers and consumers that have built the juggernaut shoe industry.

Beautifully illustrated throughout, Shoes is a surprising history of an everyday piece of attire. It will appeal not only to followers of fashion, but to those interested in social history and identity.

320 pages | 160 color plates, 15 halftones | 7 x 9


Reaktion Books image

View all books from Reaktion Books


"[One of] this season's most giftworthy reads to satisfy every bibliophile on your list. . . . The curator of Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum explores the shifting status and social meaning of footwear and its evolving cultural value across designs and eras."

Nathalie Atkinson | Globe and Mail

"Semmelhack's book takes issues of identity politics firmly in hand, yet she writes like a true art historian. The result is an incredibly edifying, deeply entertaining, manifestly readable look inside everyday objects that most of us are too busy to truly consider. The book is a more than adequate reference guide for those in the industry, a sample of how to properly curate and discuss a museum exhibit, a lovely coffee table book, and a highly readable adventure in general. This is one of those rare books that truly offers something substantive for everyone who might not usually think about picking it up. On its face, such a daily subject may not seem worth getting excited about, but Shoes is not at all prosaic and it's quite difficult to put down after the first few pages."

Megan Volpert | PopMatters

“Semmelhack’s history of shoes is neither an investigation into design nor an exhaustive chronology, but rather an informed and breezy examination of the meanings assigned to footwear through the ages. Tracing the development of four styles of shoes familiar to both men and women today—sandals, high heels, boots and sneakers—with lively anecdote she considers them as signifiers of status and gender, as reflections of our self-image within the prevailing culture of our times, and as tools to protect certain values and power structures, or to threaten them. . . . Since there have been shoes there have been judgements about shoes, a relentless chorus of disapproval at every adaption and adoption. This is Semmelhack’s territory, airing the prejudice, the criticism, and the absurdity.”

World of Interiors

"A smörgåsbord of historical and contemporary examples, anecdotes, and stories revealing how each style has evolved. . . . An extremely good introduction to the vast and complex subject of why we wear the shoes that we wear."

Journal of Dress History

"Strikes a careful balance between using language that is accessible in its clarity while also appealing to academic readers interested in the relation between material objects and sociocultural identity. . . . Beautiful color illustrations of shoes both old and new. My review copy of the book looks as good and feels as lush as some of the shoes contained therein. . . . Semmelhack’s book is a pleasure to read and relies on a rich diversity of literary, visual, and material sources. It nicely ties types of footwear to the historical contexts in which they emerge and become meaningful. . . . Semmelhack’s ambition to transgress traditional gender boundaries is highly admirable too."

Journal of Fashion Theory

“Semmelhack’s work sheds a new and fascinating light on footwear, looking at its social significance, and how it has changed over the years. It is an absolute must for those interested in the subject.”

Manolo Blahnik

“This book shows us all the fashion, art, and design that allowed shoes to become a powerful cultural phenomenon. From the feet to the street to the commercial mountain peaks! And the chapter on sneakers represents how sneakers became not just a fact of life, but a way of life.”

Darryl DMC McDaniels

“In Semmelhack’s wonderful new book she uses her extraordinary knowledge of shoes to shed light on the cultural and ideological over the more familiar accounts of fashion’s ever evolving designs. Through vivid examples and rare illustrations, she invests the four categories of sandal, boot, high heel and sneaker with new meaning. It will become essential reading for students and scholars alike.”

Judith Clark, University of the Arts, London

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press