The political subject of the Georgian period was a male head of household, who governed and represented those who depended upon him, on the model of a Roman citizen. This political celebration of virtuous masculinity evolved over the course of the century. In the later eighteenth century, radicals who sought to reform the political system usually made their case within this tradition, arguing that the establishment was morally and politically corrupt, and that ordinary men deserved citizenship rights on the basis of their masculine independence. This involved organizing citizenship along gendered lines, since women, children and any man who did not meet the required masculine standard were excluded from political rights.21 Radicals too celebrated a muscular, assertive vision of masculinity and politicized the ways in which that body was clothed, as we shall see.22 It was therefore not the case that men’s claims to political citizenship were based upon disembodiment or ‘renunciation,’ as the corollary to women’s exclusion on bodily grounds. On the contrary, men’s political claims were highly corporeal, based upon a particular vision of the virtuous body.23 In this context, the masculine body was politicized and particular attention was paid to what men wore on their feet. As a commentator of 1825 noted: ‘Religion, patriotism, public and private virtue, pure and fixed principles of taste, intellectual and corporeal refinement, all – all depend upon the choice of shoes.’24 Shoe leather itself could even be said to be a masculine material, given its toughness, dull colours and earthy smell. It comprised an area of consumerism that included horse tack, breeches, luggage and other safely masculine accoutrements.25 Real men wore leather shoes whereas women, foreigners and the poor often did not, highlighting how notions of manhood were constructed in terms of gender, race and class in this period.
Gay associated with Tory writers and was critical of the Hanoverian establishment
Shoes and the nation The consumption of foreign goods and styles could be highly politicized in the eighteenth century. The fact that the narrator is walking is itself pointed, since the fashionable elite come in for criticism in the poem for not doing so. The fashionable lady whose feet are bound in ‘braided Gold’ travels by coach or chair: ‘Her shoe disdains the Street.’ By contrast, the narrator offers advice to the manly urban walker: Then let the prudent Walker Shoes provide, Not of Spanish or Morocco Hide; The wooden Heel may raise the Dancer’s Bound, And with the ‘scalloped Top his Step be crown’d.26 Gay condemns these fine soft leathers from abroad, which were both culturally suspicious and not up to the rigours of a London winter. Instead, Gay recommends ‘firm, well-hammer’d Soles’: Aileen Ribeiro notes that such shoes would have been
Gay condemned the ‘Fop, of nicest Tread’ who sported his ‘red heel’d Shoes’ on the streets of London: talons rouge originated in the court of Louis XIV and were copied by fashionable and francophile Englishmen
Whereas Whig writers like Joseph Addison and Richard Steele promoted ‘polite’ urban behaviours, Gay celebrated the sturdy indigenous culture of the lower and middling sorts. It was partly a question of supporting indigenous manufacturers, on mercantile grounds. Most shoes were made from cowhide, which was a by-product of the meat industry. Leather too was a product of the English landscape, which provided rich pasture for grazing cows and also materials such as bark and acorns (from the symbolically redolent oak) that were used in the tanning process. Edmund Burke famously used the image of ‘thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak’ to signify the silent majority who rejected revolution and radicalism in the 1790s.
Clothes’ proximity to the body make them expressive of the politics of the wearer, but given that leather articles like shoes function as a ‘literal second skin,’ they embody that connection in a particularly direct way. Critics of the elite noted that they were corrupted by the experience of the Grand Tour, where they acquired foreign clothes, tastes and manners. The ‘macaroni’ was the man who brought effeminate manners back home with the pasta dish, and became a stock figure in prints, satires and on the stage. The fop’s tiny slippers with fancy buckles contrast with the farmer’s top boots, which are bulky in order to protect the leg while riding, and which are fitted with spurs.