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Notes from the field

To wear or not to wear: The seasonal culture of footwear vs. dress codes on the Coromandel

It is not uncommon to see people in bare feet on the Coromandel in mid-winter. Especially children. Certainly nobody would think that there is anything unusual or odd about it. Do kiwis not feel the cold, or do they pretend that it is not cold? Or are they just determined?

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Person showing off his shoes
High school teacher Trif Sitnikoff showing his summer footwear, locally referred to as 'jandals'
Photo:
Paul Schneider
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Person showing off his shoes
High school teacher Trif Sitnikoff showing his winter footwear, locally referred to as 'gummies'
Photo:
Paul Schneider
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During fieldwork, I started to reflect on the above questions and discussed them with my research participants. An economic explanation can be ruled out since this seasonal culture is not limited to certain parts of society. So is it about being tough? Or are the reasons more pragmatic?  

“I wonder if it’s part of our psyche, a kind of a resistance to the to the season? Research participant

There are three types of footwear that are culturally deeply engrained and somewhat loosely associated with seasons:1) Barefoot, no footwear. Mostly during summer but also observable at other times of the year; 2) “Jandals”, it is the choice when extra underfoot protection is desired, can be seen at any time of the year; and 3) “Gummies”, mainly a winter footwear choice but also to be seen at other times of the year.  Another research participant points out the fact that kiwis certainly have a non-conformist culture when it comes to footwear, this could not be anymore the case then it is on the Coromandel, a region known for its ‘laid-back’ attitude: “Basically we live in a place – culturally and seasonally – where we can wear shorts and jandals all year round, or, you know, be bare feet. It's kind of a celebration of where we live.”

"I remember when I was in high school walking to school in bare feet and a shirt on the coldest day to somehow, you know, show that I was tough you know." Research participant

Culture versus profession

But what if a dress code requires a different option, a choice that is less ‘laid-back’, footwear that is neither jandal nor gummie? Increasingly, it seems, there is a rift opening up between the seasonal cultures of footwear and professional dress codes.

“When I started out as a teacher it was still kind of okay to be at school in bare feet”  Tim Sitnikoff, High School teacher

The question is if it is acceptable for a teacher or a doctor to be barefoot? Or in jandals or gummies? These are as much cultural questions as they are seasonal and practical. For professions where a dress code is increasingly expected in today’s world, a problem for hard-boiled Coromandel folk presents itself. Another local school teacher interviewed explained that it used to be common for teachers to be barefoot but “nowadays they’re trying to, you know, tell us that shoes are part of being professional. I'm missing the point but most people say, yeah, yeah ah, I agree.”

And so, employees are left with identifying footwear that is less seasonally cultural. And possibly less practical. Anyone who has tried wearing nice city footwear on the Coromandel in winter will attest. On the Coromandel, winter conditions mean first and foremost muddy: “There'll be to be two or three months where there's just mud”. The clay-based soil becomes like porridge. On top of that, it is very wet. "In winter it is so saturated, you just have to wear gumboots”. And some might agree that it is also cold. Summer conditions are the opposite: “big fluctuations between dryness and saturation”.

What do you do when your profession demands more professional footwear but the conditions make this challenging, especially in a rural context? A research participant explained that this means that she has to take the car: “I can tell you that I don’t wear nice shoes unless I'm taking the car. I can’t wear nice shoes in the rain and the mud”. The same research participant explained that she drives to work in winter even though she could walk “only so my shoes don’t get ruined”. So in a way, the profession requires removal from seasonal cultures in order for employees to conform to the dress code.