Teenagers buy trainers to express their individuality and fit into social groups – and many keep them dirty to preserve memories of gigs and other life experiences, new research shows.

A three-year study by Nottingham Trent University explored the relationship between Generation Z – who were born into an image-led, social media society – and their choices in footwear.

“The teenage years are a significant period during which children transition into adulthood, and are a key time when people start to form their own identity,” said Dr Naomi Braithwaite, of the School of Art & Design, who led the research.

“Today’s teenagers have been born and raised under the significant pressures that the new image-conscious world brings. Previous research has shown more than 80 per cent of teenage girls found that the pressure to conform to a certain look, compounded by social media, causes anxiety.

“Considering how teenagers feel in their shoes in this research has revealed a myriad of different emotions – from individuality, to fitting in to a group, to being comfortable, grown up or cool.

“There were many pairs of trainers that were discussed which were covered in mud which could not be cleaned, as that might erase their meaningfulness.

“And the owners of these muddy shoes cherished them as a way to remember their favourite experiences in life, and to tell a story to the outside world about who they are.”

The study – which involved interviews with 16 to 19-year-olds from across the UK – revealed that many owned multiple pairs of trainers and chose what to wear depending on the emotions they wanted to express.

For example, many used white-clean trainers as symbols of purity and child-like identity. At the same time, the same people owned other trainers which looked very worn, but which they had cherished over time and meant something to them.

“From following the trend for wearing branded trainers or investing in the first high heels as a symbol of womanhood, trainers and other footwear provoke deeper discussions around identity,” added Dr Braithwaite.

“And different kinds of shoes are also used as a rite of passage over time.

“What this study reveals is that shoes are used do more than just communicate how you want to be seen; they are expressions of who the person is, where they have been and what they have done.

“In many ways, people are using their shoes as a personal biography. So when looking at a person’s shoes, it is worth considering what that person is telling about who they really are.”


Picture Caption: Dr Naomi Braithwaite, of the School of Art & Design, who led the research.