When I decided to do a project on shoes I started to think about where I might find interesting shoes. Northampton was and still is, on a much reduced scale, the centre of the shoe making industry in the UK. I decided to look at the local museum website and found the following information :
“Northampton Museum and Art Gallery has the largest collection of historical footwear in the world, designated as being of international importance. The ground floor is given over to the display of some of the museum’s 12,000 shoes, spanning the period from the Ancient Egyptians to the present day and includes novelties such as Elton John’s ‘Tommy’ boots from the film Pinball Wizard, giant boots made for Jumbo, the eleven year old female elephant that took part in the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition in 1959, and a signed pair of football boots by former England international captain and fashion icon David Beckham.
There are also two galleries dedicated to footwear: Life & Sole focuses on the history of shoemaking and contains a re-creation of an old shoe factory; Followers of Fashion concentrates on the history of fashions in footwear throughout the centuries and includes designs from the likes of Salvatore Ferragomo, Manolo Blahnik and Vivienne Westwood. There are also several paintings on display that reflect the museum’s focus on footwear, such as the 17th-19th century Dutch and Flemish works by Jan Miel and Hendrik van Oort featuring cobblers, shoemakers and shoeshiners.” (Northamptonshire Boot and Shoe, 2017)
The website also informed me that they were advertising for volunteers, with photography skills, to re-photograph and catalogue the collection. I contacted them as requested to be told the Project Manager was absent for three weeks, when I was able to eventually make contact with the right person I was informed that the web site was woefully out of date and the positions were no longer available, further that the shoe collection was currently closed until April or May 2017 as the galleries and displays were being completely overhauled. Nor were they willing / able to provide any access in the meantime despite the academic nature of my enquiry.
This was a frustrating outcome having had to wait for some time to be able to get a definitive answer.
In parallel I had also contacted a number of shoe recycling outlets and large scale recyclers. This after some research to track down the companies in question as it turns out many charities and council recycling sites sub-contract the actual recycling to third parties who have large scale regional processing centres and merely act as collection points.
I contacted 3 such organisations, none of whom were willing to let me visit their regional centres, especially armed with a camera. Quoting variously; health and safety restrictions, lack of insurance for 3rd parties and lack of staff time to accommodate extraneous activities. I have no idea what lay behind this reluctance other than a suspicion they thought I intended to show their operation in a negative light.
This opinion based on regular reports of a number of dubious activities in the charity recycling sector – e.g. various recycling companies advertising that they support specific charities which upon investigation exposes that whilst the recycling operation is often highly profitable – giving truth to the expression “where there’s muck there’s brass ” – the actual contribution going to the charity in question is often minuscule.
I was surprised that there was such a consistent and industry wide reluctance to engage but the bottom line was that this was a another dead end as my goal was to get some images for my project rather than embark on a long term investigation of the recycling industry.
I then considered the remaining shoe manufactures in Northampton, in response to the influx of cheap mass produced shoes from places like the Philippines, Korea and China the remaining UK based manufactures tend to be more specialist high end designer makers. Often selling hand made shoes in the £500 to £1000 plus range.
Although high fashion was an aspect of the industry I had considered I decided that this wasn’t what my project was really about and didn’t pursue this line of enquiry any further. Instead deciding to focus on what could be found in local 2nd hand outlets such as charity shops, jumble sales and car boot sales.
Footnote : Shoe of the Month: Rollermania
The Bay City Rollers were a Scottish pop-rock band from the 60s and 70s. With their unforgettable haircuts, good looks and half-mast tartan trousers they had a strong following among teenage girls. Rollermania peaked in the mid-70s with a stream of top hits including the classics Remember (Sha-la-la), Keep on Dancing, Bye Bye Baby, Shang-a-Lang and Summer Love Sensations. The band made an impact on teen fashion. Fans supported them wearing tartan scarves, homemade tartan trousers and even Bay City Roller inspired shoes. Designed by Barrie K, these shoes were made in 1975.