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This dissertation examines walking in high heels as a mundane technological practice through which feminine subjectivity is co-constructed. Drawing on an ethnographic study of the consumption of high heels in New York City, I situate the performance and negotiation of high-heeled femininity in a variety of contexts that range from leisure occasions to professional spaces and public settings. In the four chapters of this dissertation I move from interview accounts of the experience of wearing high heels to ethnographic accounts of the practice of walking in high heels and how this skill is taught, learned, accomplished, and sustained. Wearing high heels is analysed as a situated and ongoing practice that is oriented towards the various embodied, affective, social, and infrastructural challenges that wearers encounter in particular settings and circumstances. Such challenges are specific to the identities, bodies, and contexts in and through which they are negotiated, and therefore involve different embodied and affective concerns, techniques, and objectives. This negotiation of identity, materiality, embodiment, and social relationships results in a multiplicity of femininities, which can reproduce and maintain – but also challenge and subvert – conventional norms of (post-)femininity. A key focus of this dissertation is the ethnographic study of a broad range of activities that fall under the category of ‘consumption’, which entails not just the buying and wearing of high heels, but also the testing, adapting, modifying, learning, training, walking, caring, and repairing that are necessitated by the desire and determination to wear such shoes. Altogether these practices highlight the invisible labour required for the functioning of high heels (and the bodies that wear them), and at the same time draw attention to the knowledge and skill needed to make bodies and shoes work in specific contexts and over longer periods of time. These embodied practices underscore the sensory and practical aspects of wearing high heels, and show how high-heel wearing not only informs the performance of identity but is also involved in the normalization and naturalization of certain forms of feminine corporeality. This dissertation also seeks to embed the wearing of high heels in a broader network of relevant social groups, professional practices, and media that goes beyond the sphere of the individual wearer. I therefore draw attention to ancillary experts, such as catwalk coaches, dress consultants, and medical and alternative health professionals, as well as a wide range of media, such as cinema, television, online video, popular literature, fashion journalism, and instruction manuals, all of which play an important role in the accomplishment of – and the discourse surrounding – the high-heeled walk. To analyse the co-construction of bodies and high heels, I employ a number of concepts and theories from numerous academic disciplines, including Science and Technology Studies, Fashion Studies, Feminist Phenomenology, and Feminist Media Studies. This has helped me to conceptualize the practice of wearing high heels from a variety of overlapping perspectives; moreover, embracing such a range of source material is also a means of stimulating further discussion and conceptual development between these disciplines. This combination of different disciplinary approaches not only sheds new light on the high heel, but also enriches the analytical concepts and theoretical discussions that are central to these disciplines. In conclusion, this dissertation argues that studies of technology should pay much more attention to everyday objects and how they inform our subjectivity. The fact that mundane objects are no longer considered ‘technology’ does not necessarily diminish their political power. Rather, their function, role, and impact have been normalized and naturalized to the extent that they have become all but invisible, which only enhances their ability to reproduce or maintain ideologies of difference. This is particularly true of objects that we engage with intimately on a daily basis for long periods of our lives, which therefore become part not just of our social relationships but of our very selves.

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442 pages


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body techniques; embodiment; fashion; femininity; high heels; materiality


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Committee Chair

Seth, Suman

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Green, Denise N.
Jackson, Steven J.
Hilgartner, Stephen

Degree Discipline

Science and Technology Studies

Degree Name

Ph. D., Science and Technology Studies

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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