W.H. Clinkard: Beautiful Shoes (c.1958)
What drew me to this West Bridgford shoe shop advert when I caught sight of it in a late-fifties Theatre Royal programme? Well, it wasn't the “De Nero” high heels, which strangely anticipate both the plastic sandals known as Crocs, and the fame of a certain Italian-American actor in Taxi Driver (plus, the Bananarama songbook). Nor was it “That Brevitt Look” – a shoe so cutely shaped that you might need to seek medical attention were it in any way found to resemble your actual foot.
No, the real fascination of W.H. Clinkard's 1958 advert is its catchline revealing the long-forgotten phenomenon of X-Ray shoe fitting – a practice that seems like a highly unorthodox selling point. Between the thirties and sixties, however, it was apparently commonplace on the high streets of Britain and the United States. The promise of a radiation dose during a shopping trip to West Bridgford probably wouldn't appeal to many these days, but was widely accepted back then, it seems.
A Fluoroscope – sometimes referred to as a Pedoscope in the UK – was a scaled-down medical X-Ray machine, specially designed to photograph the bones of the feet. The idea that this was perfect for 'scientifically' shaping new shoes to the exact structure of the customer's extremities sounds slightly dubious, and falls apart when you consider that feet tend to be composed of flesh and muscle as well as bones. But the devices were apparently hugely popular, especially with children, and became something of a selling tool in themselves.
Besides, back in 1958, the idea of X-Rays still meant science fiction and The Future rather than an increased likelihood of cancer. It was an era of nuclear-powered aircraft, cars and domestic refrigerators, so the notion of X-Ray shoe-fitting slotted right in.
The use of Fluoroscopes declined during the sixties and seventies, and the machines are now remembered – when they are remembered at all – as curiosities; cautionary illustrations of the problems that can arise when otherwise useful technologies overextend themselves to places they don't really belong. Despite that, for a few decades during the mid-twentieth century, X-Ray shoe-fitting machines – or leaky radioactive boxes that showed you a negative image of your own skeletal toes – managed to have their moment of glory on Central Avenue.