An exhibit by the Haffenreffer Museum Student Group.  Opened April, 2012

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Shoes as Craft


Shoemaking is a complex skill requiring a great deal of labor. The goatskin boots from Nuristan, eastern Afghanistan, on the right, would have been worn only for special occasions and not even outside. Most Nuristanis go barefoot day-to-day, therefore shoemaking is a specialized, professional craft, producing well-crafted objects for special commissions. Master cobblers take on apprentices, and teach through imitation—the master makes a single shoe, and the apprentice copies it to complete the pair.

In other cultures where shoes are more a part of daily life, craftspeople learn more versatile techniques, and then adapt them to shoemaking. The colorful cloth shoes from the Mien people of Thailand, on the left, reflect embroidery techniques taught to young girls as early as age five or six by older women in their families. However, this skill is not unique to shoes; similar embroidery also appears on Mien pants, tunics, sashes, head-wraps, and other textiles.

Nuristani boots, Afghanistan, 20th century. Gift of Richard Strand

Mien embroidered shoes, Thailand, 20th century. Haffenreffer Special Fund purchase

Shoes as Place


People make shoes to meet the challenges of their environment, and geography often dictates what materials are available to use. The Serbian slippers on the left are made of woven cornhusk. Cornhusks are lightweight, durable, and inexpensive since more than one fifth of Serbia’s total land area is devoted to the production of corn.

However, in many cultures, shoemakers integrate foreign materials into local designs. The Hausa people of West Africa are renowned for their dyed leather and make sandals like those on the right. Local needs dictate their shape—open sandals are ideal for the hot climate—yet the bright colors are produced with plants from near and far: turmeric root (from South Asia) for the yellow and sorghum (local to West Africa) for the red. The green is produced with a dye made from mixing brass or copper filings with mineral salt.

Cornhusk shoes, Serbia, 20th century. Gift of Dwight B. Heath and Anna M. Cooper. Heath

Leather sandals, Hausa, West Africa, 20th century. Gift of Charlotte Taylor


Shoes as Symbol


People often decorate their shoes with personal and spiritual symbolism. The Assiniboin people of the Great Plains created the beaded moccasins on the left for ceremonial use. Notice the “buffalo tracks”—white stripes with blue squares on the shoe’s sole. The movement of buffalo herds, important sources of food and hide, dictated patterns of life for Great Plains people. By representing these tracks, the shoemaker reflects the reality of a life following the trails beneath her feet, and the hope for plentiful herds in the future.

Similarly, the stitching on these Chinese cloth shoes acts as both decoration and lucky charm. The motif of swirling clouds is a visual pun—the word for "cloud" in Chinese, yún, is also the word for "good fortune." Just as the platform soles elevate the wearer above danger on the ground, the decorations elevate him above misfortune.

Chinese cloth shoes, 19th century. Jenks Museum of Natural History, Brown University

Assiniboin beaded moccasins, 19th century. Rudolf F. Haffenreffer collection


Shoes as Status


Shoes can serve as representations of power and status. The Akan people of Ghana produced the sandals on the right. High-ranking officials and royalty were the only members of Akan society who did not go barefoot and the finest ornamentation was reserved for those of highest status—only a chief was permitted to wear the gold foil and geometric patterns that appear on these shoes.

The Indian knob-toed sandals on the left represent divine power. This style of sandal—the paduka, or ‘footprint’, is most often worn by holy men. Its design keeps the foot elevated, reducing damage done to the earth in adherence to the Hindu belief in ahimsa, or non-injury. The paduka also appears in the Ramayana epic. When the hero Rama is exiled, his half-brother Bharata places Rama’s padukas on the throne as a sign that, although Bharata is ruling as regent, Rama is the true king.

Akan gold-leaf sandals, 20th century. Gift of Peter and Dr. Anita Klaus

Indian Knob Sandals, 19th century. Jenks Museum of Natural History, Brown University

Curated by students of the Haffenreffer Museum Student Group
Laura Berman '14
Ana Colon '14
Allison Iarocci '13
Madeleine Luckel '14
Zachery McKenzie '13
Zal Shroff '14
Hannah Sisk '13