Shedding shoes gains popularity

A new custom finds footwear at doorsteps of more homes in U.S.

January 21, 1999|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

BETHLEHEM, N.Y. - First, there were no hats in the house. Now there's a move afoot to shed shoes at the doorstep.

As Americans become exposed to other traditions through shifting immigration patterns and increased travel abroad, the foot has come under fire.

Practice not uncommon

Shoeless houses are not new or uncommon in the rest of the world. For hundreds of years, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have taken their footwear off in the home and at the temple or mosque to show humility before God. They also remove their shoes to keep both places free of germs and dirt. But those who aren't familiar with Eastern customs are discovering that walking around the house barefoot or in socks and slippers has its perks, from comfort to cleaner carpets.

As the trend gathers converts, debate has erupted in American foyers, mud rooms and entrance halls.

``It's not just an Asian custom,'' insists George Gmelch, a shoeless advocate and anthropologist at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. ``Most of the world doesn't wear shoes.''

Gmelch acquired the habit nine years ago, after teaching in Japan for one semester. He now leaves a basket of socks and slippers at the door for his guests.

Some are treading with suspicion, though. Gmelch's colleague, fellow anthropologist Estellie Smith, calls the practice ``appallingly bad manners.''

'Reminds me of hillbillies'

``It's East Coast vs. West Coast,'' she said. ``I can't imagine walking into someone's house in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and someone greeting me with 'Take your shoes off, please.' It boggles the mind. It reminds me of hillbillies.''

The trend has added to the anxieties some guests face when paying a social visit.

What if your feet smell? Or your socks have holes in them? What do you do when recalcitrant guests simply refuse to toe the line? The Gilmans just shrugged when one reveler at their shoeless New Year's Eve party insisted on keeping her loafers on.

``We're not militant about it,'' explained Ted Gilman, a political science professor at Union College. The Gilmans, Gmelches and others say that foot odors and socks with split seams have never been a problem.

In Japan, it's second nature to remove, or at least change, your shoes in private and public places.

But the tradition seems to have a practical side, too.

``It's a lot easier to keep your house clean if you're not tracking in dirt and detritus from outside,'' said Gilman, who spent three years in Japan. ``It hasn't been long in most countries that we've been walking on pavement all day,'' he concluded.

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