Shoe and Tell: A Celebration of Teenage Identity

Shoe and Tell:  A Celebration of Teenage Identity is a continuous project that aims to explore the shoe as an object of cultural and individual expression, and understand its role in the negotiation of identity.  This research seeks to understand how in a society where there is so much emphasis on image teenagers negotiate their identity.   Through interviews, workshops and photography with the 16 to 19 year old demographic, the research investigates how shoes communicate identity.

Shoes have prominence in popular culture as transformative objects, evidenced through their presence in fairy tales, and their portrayal as symbols of desire in fashion and advertising. This research takes a nuanced approach to shoes by examining the place they hold in the everyday lives of individuals.

As worn objects shoes have a more intimate relationship with the body than clothes. How shoes feel and look on the feet has distinct bearings on the wearer’s physicality and their subsequent engagement with the world around them. The importance that shoes have in enabling the interpretation of individual identity through everyday life is central to this research.

The research findings evidence that teenagers strive to be individual and that they need to feel different, comfortable, confident, and powerful.  The research demonstrates how the ordinary and everyday object of shoes can reveal emotions and experiences. This process creates an opportunity for teenagers to communicate their feelings about themselves and the world around them, and to assert themselves as empowered and valued individuals.

“Unique, pretty, good memories. They say that I’m not afraid to try something different””
“That I am resilient and can overcome adversity whether it be mud or challenges in life.”
“I like wearing some things that stand out and like finding products which are comfortable and stylish.”
“They are dead comfy. I have to be really careful to keep them white, so I wash my hands every time I put them on. Sometimes I have a pair of gloves in my bag that I put on before I take them on and off. They say I can work hard to save for something.”
“When I first tried them on I felt they were really clunky and that they did not look good on me at all because I am so tall, and that I would look like a bit of a brat with huge feet or something. Then I realised that they are actually, really cool which is why I bought them in the first place, but on a night out they are just the perfect shoe. They are the perfect shoe for shopping, dancing, any form of exercise. They say that I have a unique style. I don’t like to have shoes like everybody else, I like to be different…I like to wear them with funky socks.”
“These are not my favourite shoes. My favourite shoes are my high heels, I love heels, they make me feel tall. 
I love these timberlands, they are comfortable and look good anywhere. When I put them on I feel trendy. I like being comfortable on my feet.” 
“That I like to be practical and if I love them then I like to take care of them. They make me feel individual and unique.”
“These shoes say that I like to be comfortable and if I’m not I get agitated. These are like elastic for my feet.”
“These are the shoes that I bought for Year 10 of school and I was adamant that I wanted a pair of Docs. It took about 6 months to convince my parents to let me get a pair. I got these second hand on eBay and I wore them every day for 2 ½ years and they are absolutely wrecked, but I love them and keep them.”
“These are definitely me because they are very fancy. When I put them on, they make me feel like a put together woman, confident, fancy and a lot taller, which is always helpful when you are 5ft 2. A put together woman means you walk around, you know what you are doing and your clothes and shoes reference that. You walk in a place you feel good in yourself, you feel confident, like your shoes can conquer the world.”
“I bought these Nike White Air Force in my first term at Birmingham Uni. Everyone else was wearing them and I 
just wanted a pair for myself. I love the whiteness of them, and I always keep them clean. I keep them white with 
baby wipes and would never wear them out to a club. I bought them because it is what my friends have, and they feel like me. “    
“These are really weird shoes, no one else has them and they don’t go with anything and they’re really easy to break. They are just strange shoes, so they are funny to wear. I buy shoes way more than I buy clothes, because I wear them every day and I like shoes.!

Being Human Exhibition

23rd November 2017 – 25th November 2017

Nottingham Writers Studio.

Shoe and Tell was selected to be part of Being Human 2017, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities, by the festival organisers, the School of Advanced Study, University of London, the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and the British Academy (BA).

Held at Nottingham Writers’ Studio, the exhibition took visitors on an exploration of teenage identity, presenting photographs of Nottingham’s teenagers and their shoes. Extracts from the teenagers’ personal shoe narratives gave clarity on the important role these everyday objects have in communicating the complexities of teenage identity.

The exhibition asked participants to reflect on what it really means to be a teenager today, while triggering personal reflections of their own teenage experiences.

Visitors were invited to write their own personal teenage shoe story and contribute to the Shoe and Tell Memory Tree located within the exhibition.

Liverpool exhibition

21st September 2021 – 14th October 2021

Exhibition in the Atrium, John Lennon Art and Design building, Liverpool John Moores University.

Through a series of photographs and supporting narratives Shoe and Tell examines the relationships between young people and their identities as they are communicated and expressed through the shoes that they choose to wear.

The Shoe and Tell project created by Dr Naomi Braithwaite in 2017, uses methods grounded in visual ethnography to document experiences of identity for individuals as they transition through transformatory life course stages including being a teenager, becoming a university student and a graduate. 

The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through the three phases of the project: Shoe and Tell: A Celebration of Teenage Identity, The Graduation Shoes Project and The Virtual Shoe Salon.

Curators: Dr Naomi Braithwaite, Dr Lee Wright, Dr Ruth Clifford

With thanks to: Carlos Santos Barea, Kevin McCormack, Martin Gee


Website Designed & curated by Wesley J Morgan 2021.

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