Why Insoles?

 What is Insole?

Before answer “why insoles”, I have to first ponder on “what is insole”. Where does it fit in the fashion-style-dress complex? Does it fall under the category of clothing, handcraft or art? According to the definitions in Kaiser’s textbook The Social Psychology of Clothing, Clothing is “Any tangible or material object connected to human body”(Kaiser, 1997). Given that insoles function to regulate the pressure and the micro-environment between shoes and human feet, they can be qualified as clothing. However, when I tried to further subcategorize it, things got tricky. Roach and Musa described dress as “the total arrangement of all outwardly detectible modifications of the body itself and all material objects added to it” (cited from The Social Psychology of Clothing). Basing on this definition, insoles barely fit the category of “dress” since they are not “outwardly detectible” unless unconnected from human body, in which case, however, they fail to meet the qualification of “clothing”.

 Another debate about insoles would be “Can they be associated with fashion or style?” Academic understanding of fashion is new styles that are accepted by a large group of people during a given time or styles that are popular as a result of “collective selection”. As for insoles, they have survived the overpowering impact of fashion modernization and are still accepted by a large group of people in China after hundreds of years (since Tang Dynasty), even though their fans are unevenly distributed geographically (mostly in Shandong, Hubei and Shanxi provinces) and demographically. However, my preliminary interview results show that, people have difficulty associating them with fashion, saying that they can’t be seen, so “what’s the point?” Kaiser argued that “If it changes, it is fashion”. Indeed, insoles have evolved and changed in terms of embroidery technics, materials, themes, symbols and texts employed, though in a more nuanced way. Still in reality, it remains a challenge for most people to invite something so hidden from view to join the carnival of fashion.

 Style is defined as a distinctive way of expression by Kefgen and Touchie-Specht (cited from The Social Psychology of Clothing) or an agency “in the construction of self through the assemblage of garments, accessories, and beauty regimes…” by Tulloch (Tulloch, 2010). The practice of choosing which pair of insoles to wear and matching their symbolic meanings to one’s real life aspirations does contribute to “the construction of self”, yet it is controversial whether this process is much of “an expression” or “agency” since there might not be an anticipated audience. However, I argue that daily adoption of insoles can be a “life style”—one that carries on the traditional way of keeping feet sanitation (taking out and cleaning insoles regularly, etc.), one that holds dear the love of parents, friends and family, one that value one’s cultural roots and hometown memories, one that is true to “who I am”.

 In Chinese literatures, insoles are classified as folk art along with other embroideries (garments, accessories, crafts, as well as embroidered portraits and pictures) considering its aesthetic values. The one thing insoles differ from other folk art forms is that they are used intensively and rigorously, barely enjoying the care a piece of art deserve. They have to withstand weekly brushing, daily abrasion with feet, socks and shoes as well as sun light exposure when being dried. They are only truly admired as a piece of art before usage. In an attempt to define insoles, we can see that there is no exclusive category that fit it perfectly. The way insoles complicate how we organize objects invites me to delve into this enigma in an effort to unravel the knot of clothing-dress-style-fashion-art.

 The Discourse of Insoles

When searching “insoles” in Chinese, I was amazed by the high publicity they enjoyed from media coverage.

 “On March 7th, 2009, after a discussion with Hubei delegation at the second session of China’s 11th People’s Congress, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao received a special gift from Wang Jinchu—a Communist Party Branch Secretary in Zhanghe village, Hubei. Wang said to the Prime Minister emotionally ‘Dear, prime minister, I represent the grass root Party Branch Secretaries to extend our gratitude! There is an eighty year old woman in our village asking me to give you this pair of insoles made by her, saying she’s living a good life now thanks to you! This character Fu (means blessing, good fortune and happiness) embroidered on the insoles means we are blessed with such a good prime minister!’ Prime Minister Wen expressed his appreciation repeatedly after hearing his words…”(Ping, 2009)

 There are many similar stories involving insoles: “Encouraged by women’s union, 34 women in Jiuji village, Shanxi, made insoles with embroidered words “safeguarding our country, honoring you” for soldiers at the frontline during Korean War.” “A 70 year old woman in Qingchuan sewed 32 pairs of embroidered insoles for firefighters in Xia Men, expressing her gratitude for their help after the 5.12 Earthquake…” “On Chinese new year’s eve, 2009, two hundred Women in Shifang, Beijing, entrusted the Women’s Union to deliver their hand-made insoles to the Disaster Relief Headquarter to show gratitude for their efforts in reconstructing their homes…” “Jan 1st, 2007, a paralyzed woman Gong Weizhou, gift the procurator in Yihan her hand-made insoles with embroidered words ‘impartial enforcement of the law’ to express her gratitude for giving back her innocence…” I am intrigued by the contrast or the co-existence of high visibility and high invisibility of insoles.

 The reason why insoles are specially chosen as a gift from commoner to public servant is that they carry shared cultural meanings. Originally, insoles have been used to express love from woman to man, from mother and grandmother to children, from children to parents, from friend to friends within and between families. Coupled by the fact they take strenuous labor and creative design, insoles therefore stands for genuine love. On a holistic level, in the process of giving and receiving, insoles function as a symbol of feminine care. Considering the traditional relationships between insole givers and receivers—women working at home to men working outside home—insoles are deemed more perfect for an “appropriate” gift from countryside women to public service men who “came to rescue”. Borrowing the symbolic interaction model described in Kaiser’s book(Kaiser, 1997), in the process of exchanging insoles, personal information such as gender, occupation, nationality and class is represented and reinforced. In the meanwhile, social meanings (recognition of one’s job, showing and accepting gratitude, demonstration of support and respect, etc.) emerged. After receiving the insoles, one can manipulate the meanings by choosing which pair to wear, or deciding to appreciate or ignore the auspicious wishing embroidered on insoles. We can see that in distribution or circulation stage, pairs of insoles function as a whole in symbolizing feminine care, as well as gender, occupational and political relationships. While in usage, cultural symbols in the form of embroidered patterns and characters within an insole are given rise in significance, especially when they conform to wearer’s personal life aspirations. However, as a result of the intersecting subject areas on insoles, the practice fits the current symbolic interaction model reluctantly considering the “symbolic interaction” takes place during the distribution of insoles instead of during appearance management; moreover, symbolic meanings within an insole are more prescribed than negotiated.

 Insoles are intriguing because of their shifting persona. In distribution, they are crafts, gifts, awards or amulet entrusted with social meanings; in storage, they are art, admired and appreciated; in usage, they are the most functional and practical piece of clothing on one’s body, providing comfort, hygiene, warmth and even health. Insoles are calling for study with its complex intersections of both subject areas and subject positions, its capability of dealing with both private self (fantasy) and public self (public reality, occupation, sex, age, etc.), as well as its enthralling juxtaposition of high invisibility and high visibility.

 *Note: The model of public, private and secret self is cited from Miller’s work(Miller, 1997).

Kaiser, S. (1997). The Social Psychology of Clothing. New York: Fairland Publications.

Miller, K. A. (1997). Dress: Private and Secret Self-Expression. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, 15(4), 223-234.

Ping, C. (2009). 英山绣花鞋垫:一针一线总关情. Hubei Tourism, 88-89.

Tulloch, C. (2010). Style-Fashion-Dress: From Black to Post-Black. Fashion Theory, 14(3), 273-304.


About Yuchen

First year graduate student in Textile and Clothing, UC Davis. Interested in bridging fashion, art and material through studying the practice of authentic Chinese fashion.
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