social signalling consequences of shoes? and how to avoid them.
May 9, 2016 9:59 PM   Subscribe

I do a thing for which there exist specialized shoes, and I was talking to someone about how when unfamiliar people show up I look at their shoes. Then it occurred to me, can't you do this outside my thing too? Like, if you see someone on the subway with leather soles, you can guess he isn't off to a construction site. I'm thinking about this now because I need to buy more shoes soon and I want to avoid accidentally signalling anything negative.

So far I've only ever worn black or brown three-eye oxfords with a plain round toe. Does that signal anything? Are there less revealing shoes?

I've also seen people walking around in sneakers like this or this. Some people walk around in hiking shoes, like this. Or loafers, like this or this. Do any of these mean anything?

I'm ideally looking for a taxonomy of shoes where for every kind it said "This kind of shoe is traditionally worn by farmers in Maine and baristas in Brooklyn who want to be farmers in Maine. This kind of shoe is mostly worn by twenty year olds who don't understand what people infer from one's shoes. This kind of shoe is strongly associated with people who kick puppies for fun."

I mostly want to avoid accidentally signalling anything negative. I want people to look at me and think, eh, somewhere in the middle class, educated enough, politically uninteresting, unlikely to become violent, nothing to see here.

In case there's some synergistic effect with the rest of your clothing, five to seven days a week I wear loose-cut black cotton pants with the Dickies logo removed and a solid-colored long sleeve shirt with raglan sleeves and a quarter-zip mock-neck.
posted by d. z. wang to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Does that signal anything?

yeah, professional with retro/hipster or conservative tastes.

Given your descriptors, sounds like you want some brogans.
posted by Miko at 10:02 PM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


The first link (New Balances) means relatively hip, sporty but not a jock, athleisure and/or works in a creative field.

The Keds mean lots of things, varies by gender. The loafers mean "casual shoe for women that isn't sloppy but isn't too fussy/mommish/Kardashian-like," the Toms being generally for the younger set at this point, and more menswear-inspired loafers for those in their mid/late twenties.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:04 PM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


White or red shoelaces on black leather boots strongly suggest someone is a neo-Nazi/racist skinhead.
posted by Pizzarina Sbarro at 10:45 PM on May 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is really interesting but would be an undertaking if the scope is more narrow than larger cultural themes / well-accepted cultural shifts.

There was a time where I would be embarrassed to wear Nikes because of the culture-jammer adbuster type of political leanings I assumed all my friends shared. I would be wearing something selfish that blindly disregarded the clear agenda of consumer culture, etc. etc.

But some people wear them because it's emblematic of American success - I think Seinfeld does this.

Steve Jobs wore Levis because they are from San Francisco, but also represented the 'every man'. Not shoes but you'll notice pictures of when Clinton was President, he always wore a $40 Timex Ironman. He wanted to be relatable, and so he wore the best selling watch of nearly that entire decade.

People wear Jordans because it's also emblematic of another kind of success, and because they were so expensive when launched, over time they also cleverly became emblematic of a street-level, or closer to home type of success.

Jerrod Carmichael is a really smart comedian, and was recently on Late Show with Colbert. He noticed Jon Batiste, the band leader, was wearing Jordans with his suit, and said to him on air, "yeah, I know those shoes, you had that troubled childhood, too." If it was friendly comic banter or some heavier understood solidarity, I don't know.

There's always going to be hidden cultural weight and social nuance just out of reach.

Taylor Swift wears Keds. But they were also on the cover of Sleigh Bells 'Reign of Terror' album, but here slightly splattered with blood. I think they wanted to suggest their brand of synthed-out electro pop was the soundtrack to an amped up metaphorical cheerleader hit-squad. Are Keds a safe choice, or is there something more sinister?

For your links, New Balance are eco-tech, keds are mall-hoppers (but see above,) rock shoes are worn by IT people who want to let people know they are active outdoors on the weekends but also practical and informs of knowledgeable pragmatism in a Leatherman/multi-tool sort of way, Toms tells you the person could take the values espoused by Whole Foods to heart, and is fashionable but globally conscious in doing so.

The thing is, though, a lot of this cultural typecasting sort of puts people in a box. It can very quickly go in unfortunate directions. There's a sort of popular meme called '[insert x group] Starter Kit' and then there's like clip art of various consumer items that represent personality traits in specific contexts but there's also a sort of subtext of class elevation that's passed along with it.

You'll never be free of someone else's signal corps, but the good thing is they aren't likely listening, and most people are ok with you being you.

For what it's worth, you can't go wrong with Cole Haan. Unless you really don't like Nike.

But that's a whole other subject.
posted by plexi at 11:16 PM on May 9, 2016 [12 favorites]


Who are you trying to avoid signalling negative things to? Wear what they're wearing when they're at the place you're at, doing the things they're doing. People belong to different cultures, with different expectations, and you're going to signal positively to some people and negatively to others by doing the same basically value-neutral thing.

I wear very plain, casual slip-on shoes, the kind that you pull off a rack because a box would cost far more in production and floorspace than the shoes are worth. But at my workplace, which is young and a little poptimism-inflected and 85-but-not-100% like me, that is its own signal--that I am averse to decorating myself (or at least looking like I'm doing it), and so that I am a person who doesn't like spending money, and so that I am a person who shops at Walmart, and so that I am the kind of person who doesn't think Walmart is markedly more morally compromised than Amazon, but (through other, careful signaling that I am otherwise like them!) that I am not the kind of person who wants to make weird populist hay about that, etc. etc.

Which can get to you if you let it--and not even in a bad way, it's just interesting. But if it's getting to you, or even if it's just too interesting, remember that most people don't care, and many people who do care know you well enough for actual interaction to attenuate most of the shoe-related signal that gets through. My coworkers know that I am 85-but-not-100% like them because we talk a lot and are friends; the shoes are not really much of a clue by comparison.

Unless you're in a very sales/first-impressions kind of job (or social life), the middle group you're signaling for, who is paying attention but doesn't and won't ever know you very well, is extremely small and mostly not important.

For what it's worth--I'm about 30, and the only shoes I recognize as distinct from other shoes of the same color and cut are Chuck Taylors. To me they signal, "This person likes the same kind of shoe I do, but is willing to spend $60 for them."
posted by Polycarp at 11:37 PM on May 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


This strikes me as a bit paranoid and ridiculous. I wear New Balance sneakers and all it signals is that I like being comfortable and I think they look cool because I like how they have a retro 80s look. I don't work in a creative field, as someone suggested, and I'm not sporty either. You should wear what you like, but if you're a man and looking for something run-of-the-mill and nondescript for the office, anything like this would be fine. Black and dark brown probably "say" the least.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:38 PM on May 9, 2016 [38 favorites]


In case there's some synergistic effect with the rest of your clothing, five to seven days a week I wear loose-cut black cotton pants with the Dickies logo removed and a solid-colored long sleeve shirt with raglan sleeves and a quarter-zip mock-neck.

If you're young, I would think you were an engineer (specifically, for some reason).

I do a thing for which there exist specialized shoes,

Do you want to wear hiking or climbing boots around? I don't think anything negative about that. I'd think it was studentish, maybe, but that's not negative.

Also remember that, like you, not everyone is aware of the larger signalling their shoes are sending out. Right now it's very hard to go to a typical shoe store and not see Keds, New Balance, or Toms around, or have many other options. So shoe X might actually mean someone has limited options and is just wearing what fit in the store (whatever it signals).

2nd Miko and AppleTurnover for recs.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:55 PM on May 9, 2016


I think your current choice of shoes is relatively neutral, and comes close to your ideal of 'somewhere in the middle class, educated enough, politically uninteresting, unlikely to become violent, nothing to see here.' It sounds neat and professional but not showy. A tad bourgeois, but not aggressively so. I think you are doing fine.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:03 AM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Basically, there are very few shoes that you are likely to wear that will give much of an overt impression one way or another. People who want to brandish their political beliefs or membership of a subculture with their footwear will already know the styles, brands, and outfit combinations that will do that. I'm thinking skinheads and tall Dr Martens, Goths with those enormous platform buckled boots, Yacht-type people with artfully dishevelled deck shoes, fashion guys with hand-made Italian lace-ups, that kind of thing. If you look like a fairly ordinary guy generally, your shoes will probably blend into that ordinary-ness, unless you wear something particularly outlandish like toe shoes or something. (Fwiw toe-shoes to me indicate a somewhat earthy but nonetheless consumption-focused fitness/activity freak).
posted by mymbleth at 1:35 AM on May 10, 2016


For most people, a shoe is a conscious fashion/comfort choice, not necessarily a leading personal signifier, but I can think of a few exceptions.

Men who wear Birkenstocks all year round -- that's gone from a Phish fan liberal hippie to more mainstream but you still wouldn't wear them with a suit.

Wearing Vibram toe shoes indicates you've put a whole lot of thought into your shoes and you're making some kind of statement. And you want people to ask you about them.

If you wear Dansko clogs, people assume you're a nurse or a teacher or spend a lot of time on your feet.

Uggs for men means you're into male fashion or have a big crush on Tom Brady.

I used to have feelings about the significance of "Parts of me are still a teenager" Chucks but then I saw Ted Allen wearing them with a suit on "Chopped" and thought he looked cool.

Wearing Crocs slippers can indicate you're in it for the comfort, not the fashion. Definitely not the fashion.

Wearing a seriously beautiful pair of well-maintained dress shoes with a suit indicate you've got it together n a way that New Balance sneakers don't. In the same way, wearing attractive or funky leather shoes with jeans as opposed to sneakers indicates you get fashion.

I don't think you're overthinking this. There's a great interchange in "30 Rock" where after Jack Donaghy sets Liz Lemon on a date with another woman (because he mistakenly assumed she was gay), Lemon asks why he thought that and he replies, "Those shoes are definitely bi-curious."
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:13 AM on May 10, 2016 [7 favorites]


It is pretty hard to accidentally signal with footwear. The high signal shoes tend to be really expensive and/or hard to find because that is what maintains the signal fidelity. Otherwise all kinds of the wrong people will accidentally buy them and create lots of noise.

But if you want to look old be sure and buy all white cross trainers. (This detail was used in the TV series Second Chance where the protagonist was brought back to life in a young super healthy body but still wore all white cross trainers and it was a nice visually incongruent signal of his underlying seniorism).
posted by srboisvert at 3:14 AM on May 10, 2016 [6 favorites]


If you want another understated shoe option, I'd say you could also do Clark's Desert Boots with your uniform of choice.

Your question reminded me of a time I was at the opening of a gallery show; the crowd was mostly friends of and fellow artists in the same program as the artists in the show, with a sprinkling of buyers and agents. I remember being struck by the vast variety of shoes in the crowd, pretty much each of them unique, many paint-spattered. Point being, yes, shoes can send signals, but they're highly individual ones, so tied to and interrelated with the overall context of that person it's hard to give you the taxonomy you're looking for. Your best bet is probably to look round for people in real life or elsewhere whose look you aspire to and simply copy them.

But I will say that while the leather New Balances you posted are borderline, this kind or the Seinfeld Nikes do scream "middle-aged man who is proudly indifferent to fashion."
posted by Diablevert at 3:56 AM on May 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


I mostly want to avoid accidentally signalling anything negative.

Then go for brown or black loafers or any non extreme sneaker. (no flashing lights or day-glow swirls)

Think boring :-)
posted by sammyo at 3:59 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Aside from really broad strokes (like sneakers vs. dress shoes), a lot of this is fashion and changes over the years. Keds, for example, were everywhere in the late 80s, and then became so uncool that nobody wore them, not even the sartorially clueless, and are making sort of a comeback now. Crocs were considered hip for a very brief time and almost immediately fell straight into kids-and-Disney-tourists territory.

Even if you manage to buy the non-signal-iest shoes possible, in a non-trendy profile that won't look dated for another five years, there's still the question of what you're wearing them with. Black middle-of-the-road shoes that work with your everyday outfit might look silly with a nicer suit or casual shorts.

There's no real cheat sheet; it's mostly a matter of paying attention and observing patterns. As a consequence, the worst you'll ever signal with the "wrong" shoes is probably "this person doesn't know what's in style." And people are generally not paying attention to the exact brand and translating that into "this person belongs to X and Y groups," but taking in the whole picture to see if you look reasonably well put-together and aware of style on a macro level. It's not as scary as it sounds.

But if you've ever wondered why someone has two dozen pairs of shoes, this is sort of why.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:18 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I want people to look at me and think, eh, somewhere in the middle class, educated enough, politically uninteresting, unlikely to become violent, nothing to see here.

I'm sure I project this image and I wear nikes, which from comments above we can see are perceived in different ways. My entirely boring reason is I know my size in them and don't have to try on every pair in the store and they are comfortable and I hate wearing shoes that aren't.

I'm sure I also project "doesn't know about fashion" but I hope it says "I don't give a damn about fashion".

It's a really interesting question but I don't hink there's any real answer.
posted by kitten magic at 4:29 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


[A few comments deleted. Please just answer the question, if you can help. If you think there's no answer, or just don't like the question, go ahead and skip it.]
posted by taz (staff) at 4:38 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


As a data point, when I (anglophone Canadian) was travelling in France a number of years back people were definitely making assumptions by looking at my shoes. If I wore Doc Martins, I was asked if I was English. If I wore hiking boots, I was asked if I was Australian. If I wore Birkenstock sandals, I was asked if I was German. My (Quebecoise) friend wore generic runners and was asked if she was American.

I gently suggested to my significant other that he switch his everyday shoes from New Balance white walking shoes to the exact same model in brown because even in a casual work environment, that seems just a bit more put together. The white ones signal more "I just didn't think about this". He uses walking shoes because he frequently walks the 7km to work.

The oxfords seem like practical shoes, not overly casual. Most specialty shoes are sold in specialty shoe places and if you are buying shoes there, you probably partake in that activity. For "somewhere in the middle class, educated enough, politically uninteresting, unlikely to become violent, nothing to see here", shop at the mall.
posted by TORunner at 5:09 AM on May 10, 2016


Social signaling via shoes only occurs when you are wearing the precise wrong shoes for a situation (eg, work boots to a funeral).

Day to day life has evolved such that casual dress norms mean that most kinds of footwear outside of crocs are considered valid choices.

Certain brands, eg: Toms, Jordans, Yeezys, Belgians, may imply various socio-economic/cultural signals.
posted by deanc at 5:09 AM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Since nobody's yet mentioned it: This is the shoe traditionally worn by farmers everybody in Maine.
posted by gueneverey at 5:22 AM on May 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


A big one IMO is square toe vs. round or almond toe. If you care about being in fashion or not being out of fashion, or some similar bunch of signifiers, ignore the square toed loafer or Oxford. At least here in the hinterlands, otherwise unobjectionable neutral fashion is ruined by these early-2000s monstrosities. They also wear badly because they have freakin' corners. Just stop it, men!
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:32 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


Btw, the above refers only to generic office culture. There are probably distinct subcultures the above doesn't apply to.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:35 AM on May 10, 2016


Also be aware that signalling tends to be bound to geographical regions. What may signal one thing in one place will read differently in another. Example: when I moved from Scandinavia to the UK, one bag brand that signalled "nerdy IT guy" in Denmark was suddenly the hippest thing on the streets of the UK.

So keep in mind that you cannot control what/how people read your outfit - you can only really work on the most obvious signifiers in your particular geographical location.

(for more reading re signals, communication &c: semiotics)
posted by kariebookish at 5:47 AM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


I actually write a paper about this in college.

"So far I've only ever worn black or brown three-eye oxfords with a plain round toe."

"I mostly want to avoid accidentally signalling anything negative. I want people to look at me and think, eh, somewhere in the middle class, educated enough, politically uninteresting, unlikely to become violent, nothing to see here."

So far, so good. Stick with what you're doing. Three-eye oxfords in black or brown are what I interpret as "normal".
posted by kevinbelt at 5:52 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm thinking about this now because I need to buy more shoes soon and I want to avoid accidentally signalling anything negative.

Every negative thing I will think about you based on your shoes:

Doc Martins: I was alterna-cool in high school in the 90s and Never Let It Go

Chucks: Similar-- another totem of 90s hipness that someone insists on broadcasting long after the moment has passed

Sneakers/Trainers when not exercising: I am 12 years old and/or an American tourist (downtown morning exception: woman walking to the office where she will put on less comfortable dress shoes)

Hiking boots: I sometimes go hiking and see no need to buy an extra pair of shoes other than these

Brown leather flip flops: I am a bro (corollary: I am from an upper middle class background and grew up or live in a metro area but didn't become a hipster)

Prada sneakers: my parents give me a large allowance, and I have to spend it somewhere in a way that makes that clear to everyone

Thick soled clunky bluchers/derbys: I have HEARD that you are supposed to wear something other than sneakers or hiking books when you want to look more put together, but I have no direct experience with doing so

And finally, when you see me in loafers: I am getting old and tired and I just don't feel like putting in the effort to tying a pair of shoes when getting ready for work
posted by deanc at 6:25 AM on May 10, 2016 [7 favorites]


Mostly shoes are going to signal whether you are into fashion or not, and perhaps also where you fall on the urban-to-rural scale. The latter would be Gucci Loafers to work boots. I hardly ever notice shoes, my wife always notices shoes.

You can probably tell what you are signaling, if anything, by the store you buy your shoes in. Stores cater to a market. You get something different from Allen Edmonds than LL Bean or, Lord help us, Foot Locker.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:27 AM on May 10, 2016


What you're wearing now signals exactly what you want (to the extent shoes can do this).
posted by rainbowbrite at 6:39 AM on May 10, 2016


Based on your description, (here in Toronto anyways,) you'd be asking for Blundstones. If you wear a pair to an open house at a starter home, a children's party, or rock climbing gym, you'll have to look close to make sure you're not grabbing someone else's.

Practical, long wearing, and can be dressed up or down. Pretty gender neutral, too. I've seen them worn well with a suit and a dress.
posted by thenormshow at 6:45 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


My friend: you are overthinking this from the wrong direction.

First, here is what you should do: Pick out a couple of stores that are "realistic aspirational" for you - they carry stuff that you would like to wear and really could wear in your life as it exists, but maybe a little nicer than you would normally get. Look at the shoes sold at those places, and/or look at the shoes displayed with the clothes.

If you absolutely don't care about clothes and you work a kind of middle american business job, I would suggest checking out the JCrew website, the Club Monaco website (trendier, more expensive, better quality), Bonobos, maybe Steven Alan....you're looking for widely available but still sort of fashion-y stores. Look at the shoes they provide and what they're matched with, then consider what you wear day to day. Then look around at the places you actually buy shoes at and see what compares.

If you are some kind of tech dude but don't care about fashion, I would still recommend Bonobos and Steven Alan - Steven Alan in particular seems geared to the west coast just judging from the kinds of clothes they sell and the fabrics they use. IME, their stuff is WAAAAAAAYY overpriced - nice, but, like, they want as much for some kind of made-in-China cardigan as Unionmade wants for a US-made one, etc.

Some of the shoes you're describing are having a fashion moment, so it is misleading to assume that it's easy to read them if you don't follow fashion. New Balance is having a moment, and so are puffy sneakers. Even I have a pair of puffy sneakers, and I would have been so *shudder* about that five years ago. (The most fantastic monotone navy blue Adidas via Ebay, if you must know.) So a puffy-sneaker wearer might be signalling "puffy sneakers are in right now, in a sort of slyly ironic, post-normcore, nod-to-the-West Coast inverse elitism way", or they might be signalling "I am a dad and Do Not Care". Ditto for Keds, Toms, etc.

A round toed black oxford can come across as really kiddish, like a teen's shoe for church or part time work. (If kids could still even get part time jobs.) Like this. A round toed black oxford can be very hipstery, like this. Or very serious indeed, like this. Or it can contain multitudes like our ancient friend the Doctor Martens 3-eye. You have to ask yourself: "is this shoe sewn or glued? how graceful is the last? how intentional (as opposed to randomly blobby) is the shape? How attractive are the materials? How fine is the detailing? Does it have "sport" details (puffy collar at the ankle, "sport" sole)?

To me, the most telling thing about a shoe is its shape. Indifferent shoes will be indifferently blobby/puffy. Better designed shoes may be blobby on purpose, but will generally have more shape and hew closer to the shape of the foot. Indifferent shoes will have a lot of thick lining material - puffy collar, lots of cardboard interlining - that will make them light but stiff for their size. Better shoes will either be thin and light or heavy for their size. Indifferent shoes feel sort of puffy when you heft them, I don't know how to describe it better. Indifferent shoes will often have thick, stiff, shiny leather or else very fragile suede. The thick leather has been coated in a thick plastic agent to give it shine; the suede is basically the thinnest possible layer of leather so that they can get more suede out of inferior hides.

If I were going to buy cheap shoes brand new (instead of fancy shoes gently used so that I can afford them) I would buy Clarks desert boots, the nicest Vans, something trendy on sale at Nordstrom or else a pair of Adidas - Stan Smiths or monotone puffy ones. (Adidas are much nicer than I'd thought, actually, for that type of thing.)
posted by Frowner at 6:58 AM on May 10, 2016 [8 favorites]


I have had super-wide feet since childhood, so I have always had very limited choices in shoes. I solve this problem by not caring about it. I wear Birkenstocks all the time because they're comfortable and fit me. I wear the athletic shoes I do because they come in my size. For dressy occasions, I wear the one brand that has shoes that sort of fit me (Munro American) and deal with foot pain. If people think my shoe choices mean something else, that's their problem.
posted by FencingGal at 7:39 AM on May 10, 2016


I'm ideally looking for a taxonomy of shoes where for every kind it said "This kind of shoe is traditionally worn by farmers in Maine and baristas in Brooklyn who want to be farmers in Maine.

In case there's some synergistic effect with the rest of your clothing,

I remember some of your past questions, and the way you've phrased this and other questions suggests that you're kind of hoping to get a sort of Definitive List or Set of Rules that you can just apply for the rest of your life and be done with thinking about it. Unfortunately shoes & clothing is the kind of thing that depends heavily on, not so much "synergy", but context. And context can include age, gender, race, if your shoes contrast or complement the rest of your clothing, the social/cultural environment you're wearing them in at any given time (which very often includes the country or area of a country you're in), the time of day, the time of year, the year itself (as in what is "in fashion" very definitely changes over time.)

I mean, your general observations ("if you see someone on the subway with leather soles, you can guess he isn't off to a construction site.") are correct, but barring a handful of very specific shoes, like ballerina shoes, I don't know that shoes alone really signal much of anything - I don't really think the taxonomy you're looking for really exists. Shoes PLUS clothing PLUS context can certainly signal things, but the context is really important.

Having said that, your current shoe choices sound fine to me, and the only other thing I might consider is taking a look at what your peers (as in same gender, same age roughly, same general job) are wearing and do the same, if you'd like a little more "social camouflage", where no-one actually really notices your clothing choices.
posted by soundguy99 at 7:59 AM on May 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


A round toed black oxford can come across as really kiddish, like a teen's shoe for church or part time work... Like this

If we're going to talk about signalling, to me this shoe on an adult screams "nerd who doesn't understand that it is normal for people to notice and make judgements regarding other people's clothing." There's a couple guys close to me who wore shoes like this as adults (probably the same ones they purchased for church as teenagers). Not to stereotype, but if you're some sort of engineer I'd guess you work around a lot of guys who wear shoes like this. It's sort of jarring to see someone otherwise dressed sharply but wearing a shoe like that as though it's an afterthought, and you don't want to send the message that you don't know how to or don't care to look put together. There's nothing wrong with round-toed black oxfords, so long as they're appropriately professional-looking.
posted by blerghamot at 8:05 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've also seen people walking around in sneakers like this or this. Some people walk around in hiking shoes, like this. Or loafers, like this or this. Do any of these mean anything?

Here's the thing: more people, I'd wager, are like you than not. That is, they aren't entirely sure/confident/knowledgeable about clothing, and they kind of don't care as long as they aren't drawing attention to themselves. They don't know what those shoes "mean" in the abstract either. They just wear whatever basically "goes" with their outfit, which is a MUCH clearer signaling entity in most U.S. culture.

If you're wearing Engineer Uniform (which it sounds like you are) from head to ankle, and your shoes do not visually or materially clash with that? You're going to read as "probably an engineer or a coder or whatever," no matter what specific brand of shoe you have on.

Are you actually having some kind of unpleasant repeated encounter that suggests your shoes are telegraphing something?
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:23 AM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think there's some different questions wrapped up in this:

1. How can I signal to the important people in my life that I am dressed appropriately, etc?

2. What signals am I sending to the world at large?

3. What looks good in a fashion sense?

4. What looks good in my particular social milieu?

In re the people in your life - actual work peers, family, hiring managers, etc: look carefully at what people tend to wear. Pay attention to finer details - do people wear leather shoes or pleather? Sporty/puffy leather shoes or dress shoes? Who wears hiking/comfort/etc shoes? Who wears dressier shoes? Do people spend a lot on clothes or is it a culture of thrift? Do people change what they wear a lot? Do some image searches on the internet to narrow down what people are likely buying.

In re the world at large: honestly, you can't really hack this one. In my neighborhood I am absurdly preppy because it's a working class neighborhood and everyone wears sports clothes and I wear button-fronts, non-jeans and leather shoes. At work I am clearly an admin because all the scientists wear polo shirts embroidered with molecules and all the senior people wear suits. In mainstream middle class circles, I'm weirdly bohemian and kind of poor because all my shirts are both button-front and secondhand/vintage/unusual. Amongst the punks and artists, I'm boringly bourgeois because I wear button-fronts, non-jeans and leather shoes. Can't hack this problem unless you carry several changes of clothes with you every day.

What looks good in a fashion sense? Well, follow style blogs, browse around on Styleforum, etc, and pick your poison. It's probably best not to be wildly out of date even if you don't care - so if you really don't care, pay a little bit of attention to what is in the stores and update your wardrobe when you buy new stuff - eg, don't just keep buying the same style of jeans forever, buy what is mainstream when you buy new ones. Don't be the guy who wears nothing but baggy cargo chinos and hawaiian shirts forever, unless you really want to be that guy.

What looks good in your milieu? Fashion varies. I could look really out of date in one setting and really timeless/classic/appropriate in another. Mall goth never dies, neither does nineties hippie, neither does preppy. It is fine and to me even laudable to prize fitting into one social circle over being mainstream fashionable - but again, if you want to wear broomstick skirts and patchwork (for example), be aware you're going to look dated to some people.

I'd say, honestly, that you should wear things that fit into the part of the Venn diagram where "I like them" "I can wear them to work without problems" and "They fit the physical demands of my day" overlap.

IME, demeanor and voice signal what kind of a person you are far more than clothes, unless your clothes are pretty extreme, or people are looking at you with prejudice, which is on them and can't be helped no matter how you try.
posted by Frowner at 8:24 AM on May 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


or really TL; DR:

can't you do this outside my thing too?

I mean you can but most people don't, because there are like 5 million more important things on anyone's mind at any given time.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 8:24 AM on May 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Also, you want dressy sneakers with that outfit. If you want to kick it up a notch, get something cute and sorta-on-trend-but-not-fashion-forward, like Stan Smiths. If you feel like putting money into it, Epaulet has some nice, fairly subfusc ones. (I've seen these in person and the make is nice - I would buy them if I saw a gently used pair.)
posted by Frowner at 8:28 AM on May 10, 2016


Fashion semiotics is super interesting to me, but if you're going for middle-of-the-road you should just not go out of your way to find anything you're wearing. Middle class men who do not care about fashion buy their clothes at Costco or the grocery store, because they're there anyway and need clothes. My dad and the IT guys I work with literally do things like search "shoes" on Amazon and get the cheapest brown pair, or whatever.

Be aware that this also says something to people that pay attention. Not caring is also a style. I will look at those shoes and think, "Oh, he got the cheapest brown shoes on Amazon, because that's how he shops," and that tells me quite a bit about your lifestyle and priorities.

I resent the fact that whatever middle class white men wear is seen as neutral in American society, but that's the kind of fashion that is seen as quite anonymous.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 8:56 AM on May 10, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've been in a similar place, and I'll echo the advice that there's no shortcut to paying attention to your particular context. What are your peers wearing? If you want to move into a different group of peers (at leisure or at work), what are your would-be peers wearing?

This will change over time, which is why you have to keep watching. You don't want to end up like I did, with people commenting on your "serial killer boots" and "Chester the Molester glasses". (They were fine in the '80s, why aren't they still fine now?!??)
posted by clawsoon at 10:27 AM on May 10, 2016


the way you've phrased this and other questions suggests that you're kind of hoping to get a sort of Definitive List or Set of Rules that you can just apply for the rest of your life and be done with thinking about it

This too. Every example I gave is only relevant for this specific era and cultural context. Fashion is about understanding cultural cues, context, and aesthetics (Frowner, as you can tell, is the expert on shoe aesthetics). And even then, most people won't give your shoes a second look, but some things are important to know so that you don't end up looking like a manchild when you dress up for your friend's wedding.
posted by deanc at 1:09 PM on May 10, 2016


I want people to look at me and think, eh, somewhere in the middle class, educated enough, politically uninteresting, unlikely to become violent, nothing to see here.

I think you're really unlikely to signal something else accidentally. Knock-offs of already inexpensive brands, like the Payless Vans-a-likes, might tend to signal a lower level of disposable income, as might shoes in visible disrepair (depending on the rest of the outfit); on the other end of the scale, wearing Common Projects instead of Vans would tend to signal a higher level of cash to burn, but that's because they literally cost ten times as much. There is definitely some amount of social signaling going on with footwear, but your basic criteria are so broad that they'll certainly cover any of the choices you posted.

That said, here's my personal and possibly idiosyncratic read on what you selected: to me, the first sneaker you picked is a little more tech-nerd-chic, the second is more hipstery, the third is very outdoorsy anti-fashion crunchy-ecology-faculty, the Toms are sort of hipster-fashion-crunchy, and the chunky tasseled (suede?) loafers with the visible stitching read sort of dapper/dandy to me.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:48 PM on May 10, 2016


You're not overthinking this.

I don't know what the comments were that got deleted, but I can guess.

I remember the first time I encountered someone who didn't receive on the shoe wavelength. He was pretty dumbfounded that I would make such a gratuitous judgment, as he thought, about something as absurd and insignificant, as he thought, as shoes. "If shoes tell you so much, then look at my shoes and tell me what they mean", he said. So I looked down and saw the classic shoes worn by someone who doesn't care about shoes. They have been identified correctly and linked to upthread.

I since found out that his wife started buying all his shoes for him because he couldn't make up his mind about what shoes to buy. He does better that way, but not as well as if a guy were choosing. By the way, he's just an example of a general mindset, and I don't mean to suggest that anybody who thinks this is being taken too seriously is exactly like him. Or even wrong! You don't have to play the game.

Anyway, I am mostly in agreement with the various shoe-codes that people have supplied upthread. So you were right that it's a thing, and there's a consensus too. And I don't slam my gavel about people when I see their shoes, really: I got a little perspective I think. But it's a real thing.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 5:59 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


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