I hadn’t realized that not everyone bothers to look at people’s shoes when they people watch, so let me make some notes here. I’m pretty sure this is a combination of something that Kris & Dean said, plus a couple of acting classes I took in college.
In general, people watching is fun (and profitable, if you’re a writer). Making up stories about other people–profiling them, if you will–is one of life’s little pleasures for me, especially when I can narrate out loud a nonsense version of what’s going on inside their heads and thereby make fun of them.
Some general things to look for:
- Quick intuitive flash. Sometimes you just get these from people, and then have to deconstruct why. I tend to flash on stalkerish types. Go, get out of here now!
- Hair: what color, is it cared for or allowed to do what it wants, does it hide or reveal the face, is it styled in current or outmoded fashion, is it dyed to conceal gray, etc.
- Clothes: how expensive, how well cared for, do the clothes reveal personality or conceal it in favor of revealing social status, do they fit properly, are they appropriate for the weather, are they in fashion/out of fashion, are they focused on comfort, style, quality/endurance, or status, etc.
- Body language: open/closed/aggressive, how quick are the movements, are there any limitations to movement, do the movements reflect strength/dexterity/harmony, how much personal space, etc.
But a lot of people miss the significance of shoes.
Shoes are a special case; they not only act as protective wear and articles of fashion, but they also affect our body language: someone in high heels doesn’t walk the same way as someone in work boots. And because your shoes tend to be (barring obvious things like nudity) the most vital article of clothing for physical comfort, people tend to reflect more of their long-term priorities with their shoes than, say, their shirts.
Things to watch for with shoes:
- How expensive are the shoes? If you can afford expensive, long-wearing, extremely comfortable shoes, they tend to show up in your wardrobe over flip-flops, even on days when you’re otherwise dressed like a slob. Conversely, if you’re putting up a good financial front, your shoes will tend to be cheap knockoffs, have thin soles, and fall apart quickly.
- How do the shoes affect the person’s walk? Is the person forced to limit their walk, by shortening their stride, shuffling, or by trying to avoid wear and tear on their feet (blisters, sore feet)? Is the person’s walk bouncier, faster, skipping, flat-out running? Are the person’s hips, buttocks, and breasts put more (high heels) or less (flats) prominently on display? Is the person’s height affected (or, in the case of extremely flat shoes, visually “reduced”)?
- What is the order of importance in the following factors: comfort, durability, fashion/style? For example, Crocs are extremely comfortable, not very durable, and not at all stylish. Doc Martens are comfortable, durable, and stylish. Most stiletto heels are uncomfortable (no matter how well made, they can’t compare to Crocs, for example), not durable, but extremely stylish. Any of these elements that are past the average reflect a person’s priorities.
- How worn are the shoes? How are the shoes worn? New vs. scuffed vs. polished. Soles worn slightly vs. all the way through vs. only at the heel or toe or outside edge. Are the shoes falling apart (cheaply made) or beat the holy hell out of? How dirty are the shoes? Are the shoes worn all day, or switched out with a pair of walking shoes? Does the person go barefoot behind their desk? Are the shoes modified for more comfort or some other reason–arch support, heel protectors, lifts, one-sided lifts for spinal alignment, etc.? What kind of socks, if any, are worn with the shoes?
- Do the shoes have some sort of technical significance that might reflect a job type or pastime? Huiraches made with car tire soles and jute twine, for example, are a thing with some long-distance runners who try to run with as little foot protection as possible. Closed-top Crocs might reflect someone in the nursing or restaurant business (Mario Batali’s orange ones are almost a signature).
I was pointing this out to a couple of people. We had on: a pair of immaculate Danskos, a pair of gaudy but somewhat worn flat sandals that showed off the toenails, and a pair of beat-up suede hiking mocs. Guess which one was the E.R. nurse.
One of the things I like to do is go to the Flea Market in Colorado Springs and people watch. If you watch, you can spot the professional stuff-flippers by a) their method of carrying stuff (a lightweight, highly-expandable backpack of some kind, a rolling wire basket, or, in one case, a stolen shopping cart), and b) their shoes: worn but high-quality, name brand all-purpose tennis shoes. LOTS of Nike swooshes. Contrariwise, the real amateurs are wearing flat-soled, uncushioned sandals with thin or decorative straps with no back straps, so you have to shuffle a little to get around. These people could be wearing the same clothing–but the shoes will tell.
I happened to have finished Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre the other day; he mentioned that when tailing someone, you should keep an eye on the shoes–it’s rarer for someone to switch their shoes than their clothes when changing a disguise.
Admittedly, most people aren’t professional spies, but we all tend to disguise ourselves a little in social situations. But unless you’re conscious of fashion, you probably won’t be able to disguise your feet as easily as you change your shirt.