How did you come up with idea for Made for Walking?
I’ve always been interested in history, particularly social history, and I’m also interested in design. Accessory design is fascinating because things like shoes, bags, and hats have a huge impact on the overall look of an outfit. And of all the accessories I could think of, fashion boots were probably the ones that have received less than their fair share of coverage. That was a surprise to me, because they have so many fascinating aspects: the gender paradox of a very masculine item becoming ultra-feminine, the fetishistic elements, the way they can make an outfit rustic or futuristic according to the style adopted. And that’s where the social history side comes in. But if you look in most fashion histories, or at least the big synoptic treatments, you don’t get a lot more than “popular in the sixties.” I figured they deserved better than that.
When did you start work on the book?
I’d been thinking about writing something for a while, but it was outside my regular field of work. I’m a museum curator, but in a very different discipline to fashion and design. I had my hands full researching and writing on other topics, which is one reason why I use a pseudonym – I already have quite a few publications under my real name and didn’t want to cause confusion. So finding time to research and write a whole new book in a new field was quite a challenge. Then in 2010 I saw a great book by Bradley Quinn called “The Boot,” and at first sight I thought, “wow, he just wrote the book that I wanted to write.” And it is a great book, and well worth reading. But when I got into it, I realized he’d approached it in a different way than I would have done. Not better or worse, just different. So that energized me to tell the story my own way.
But you began with Wikipedia?
Oddly enough, yes. I still had all the time challenges to deal with. In my “day job,” I often encourage students to take on creating and editing Wikipedia entries as an introduction to research and writing. People are quite rude about Wikipedia, but it does set the bar fairly high in terms of sourcing references and providing supporting citations. And it turned out that there was no entry for “fashion boot” in Wikipedia. So I took my own advice and wrote one. Writing it forced me to get into the literature of fashion, and especially the fashion press. If you want to say that “boots were popular at such and such a time,” you need supporting evidence, and as I said, that’s often lacking in fashion histories. So that was how I began to get to grips with original source material from newspapers, magazines, and the like.
Where did the blog fit into this?
The Wikipedia entry got unwieldy pretty quickly – fashion boots might be interesting, but it’s arguable as to whether they needed quite so much in-depth discussion in a general encyclopedia. Wikipedia is also a collaborative endeavor, so people can (and should) feel free to dive in and edit your stuff, in ways that aren’t always helpful. So I needed a new outlet where I could get into issues in more detail and also have the control I wanted. I was already blogging actively under my other identity, so it wasn’t a big deal to create Made for Walking. And I enjoy the format of short, focused pieces on particular subjects. When I started blogging, people began to comment and I realized it was more than just me that was interested in the subject. So that was nice feedback and made me feel like I wasn’t talking into a void.
You also did image blogging as well, right?
Yes. At one point there was an MFW Tumblr blog and a whole armada of Pinterest Boards. There was, and is, so much image content out there that could be used to illustrate the points I was making in the blog. In the end, though, I retired them. It was too easy to burn time looking for images rather than doing the hard work of writing. Plus, when I started to think about publishing, I became more aware of the tangle of issues associated with licensing and copyright. So the image blogs will probably make a return at some point, but with better sourced and attributed images.
How did you make the leap from the blog to the book?
I’d been writing the MFW blog for about 3 years and I’d accumulated a lot of written material; more than 130 posts. By the beginning of 2016, I thought, “OK, now I have enough to do a book proposal.” So I put one together, sent it to a bunch of different publishers, and fortunately the people at Schiffer came back to me and said, “Yes, we’re interested; can you get us a completed manuscript by the end of the year?” And I was incredibly excited and said, “Yes, of course! I have all this material I’ve written for the blog.” Then I mapped out the book chapters, looked at the blog posts, and realized I had a problem.
Coverage in the blog was very irregular. Some periods had lots and lots of content; others, like the nineteen eighties, had next to none. My source material was also patchy – lots for some subjects, next to none for others. My standards for references on the earlier posts were much more lax than later on. So I realized that I was going to have to do some serious research. Fortunately I had access to the resources of a big university library, including on-line journals. I also had to source and license images for the book, which proved to be more time-consuming (and expensive) than I had anticipated. But I got it done in the end, and on time too.
So is this the end for the MFW blog?
Absolutely not. For starters, the book and the blog are quite different in many ways. As I mentioned, there was a lot of original research that went into the book that was not covered in the blog. Some of that raised issues that I couldn’t discuss in detail in the book, so the blog will provide me with a way to explore those. And fashion keeps evolving and developing, so new types of boots and new ways of wearing them continue to emerge. Who would have thought, for example, that Dior would bring back the idea of a brightly colored, shiny stocking boot, something we haven’t seen since the late nineteen sixties? And that they’d do it in a spring collection?
Finally, would you say you have a bit of a boot fetish?
Ha! My wife would probably say “yes.” When I was doing research for the book, I read a quote from a psychologist called Glen Wilson who said that people tend to form fetishes about the lower parts of the body – feet, legs, shoes, etc. – because that’s the part that you see first when you’re a toddler or small child. When I was that age it was right at the end of the sixties, which was one of the times of peak popularity for the fashion boot. Lots of women wearing those tight vinyl knee-length or over-the-knee boots. So I guess it wouldn’t be that surprising if I were more than averagely interested in boots.