The gay shoe clerk 1903 (1)

The shoe clerk is helping the younger woman to put on her shoes.

Silent Films and Morality. Some Issues in Film "The Gay Shoe Clerk" (1903)

Article by Paula Maricato - and

Whenever we talk about silents there are people who claim they are hard to understand. This can be true in a way, as many things have changed throughout the decades like habits, morals, urbanization, etc. But, at least in my humble opinion, what makes silents so fascinating is the fact that they are witnesses of an old time.

Therefore, some very early silent shorts can hardly be understood by those who are not familiar with some changes occurred in society. An example of one of those films is The Gay Shoe Clerk (USA, 1903). Before going further on this reading take a look at this film’s entry on imdb site:

The plot may be a bit senseless for nowadays’ standards. A shoe clerk is assisting a girl to buy shoes while her companion is waiting until they’re finished. The clerk helps the girl to put on her shoes and her ankle is shown, he helps her very slowly and carefully, holding her feet and all of a sudden starts taking liberties at her, until he ends up kissing the girl and the eldest woman ends up being very angry and hits the clerk. A modern-day audience surely wonder why such ordinary event was so thrilling.

However, we must take into consideration that not only women dressed up in a rather conservative way, but they were also very careful in keeping their legs covered. This is something that happened not only in real life, but also in how women were displayed in mass media early XX century. In both magazines and newspapers, regardless of being a picture or a drawing, women were usually portrayed from their waists up, which gave them a kind of phantasmagoric image of faces without a body. It really contrasts with the way men were portrayed, usually their full bodies were shown, always with a self confident and elegant attitude. Take a look at covers of some American magazines of around the same time the film was produced, pay attention to the fact that women were invariably shown from their waits up. The very few occasions their full bodies were shown they were all fully covered up and always from a specific distance.

So, those representations reflected a society attitude towards women sexuality which prevailed in the beginning of XX century. When we analyze this context it becomes easy to understand why the shoe clerk got carried away with the girl’s ankle. The fact he placed his hands on her feet did represent a intimate contact back them, or at least it was considered an intimate contact within that society’s standards. The fact that the girl was not alone, but accompanied by an older woman (perhaps her mother or a relative of any sort) also shows that women at that time commonly did not go out of home alone, which reflects the conservative rules of that society.

Yes, silent films are pretty fascinating themselves, but they also provide us with valuable and pleasant insights of older cultures, standards and codes, a good and nice way to travel in time without moving. Is it simply great?

Etude 1908-10

Etude, October 1908

Here you can see some examples on how women were commonly portrayed in popular magazines on first years of XX century:
Ladies' Home Journal 1897-02

Ladies' Home Journal, February 1897

Ladies' Home Journal 1899-12

Ladies' Home Journal, December 1899

Ladies' Home Journal 1907-03

Ladies' Home Journal, March 1907