For many decades – over a century in fact – various businesses in America have discriminated against certain members of the public, usually by posting signs disallowing their entry.
This discrimination has generally been broadly based on someone’s appearance, whether appearance due to the physical attributes of race, or appearance due to personal styling choices or mode of dress.
Prior to 1965, signs restricting entry or service based on race were common in the South
Prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signs specifically barring people of the African-American race from certain stores or establishments or from using certain facilities within businesses were sometimes seen, particularly in the segregated South.
I am old enough to remember seeing such signs. I specifically remember as a child seeing two separate drinking fountains in the Sears store in Asheville, NC. Each had a sign, one reading “White Only,” the other reading “Colored Only.” “Colored” was the polite term for black Americans at the time. I remember even as late as the early 1960s, there was a laundromat in West Asheville with a “Whites Only” sign on its door.
It was perfectly legal for businesses in the southern states to post such signs as well as enforce them due to Jim Crow laws. But that all changed after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That is, those racially motivated signs came down. But they were soon to be replaced with signs citing other reasons to bar certain people.
It seems almost throughout the history of the United States, some businesses ostensibly set up to serve the public have consistently come up with reasons and ways to deny their services to people the owners considered inferior or an unequal lower class than themselves or the average member of the public.
Since after 1964 they could no longer discriminate against people based on their race, some businesses found new targets to deny entry or services to.
The 1960s brought many dramatic changes to American society
The late 1960s were a time of great social change and upheaval. The hippie movement began across the country, and there was increasing opposition to the Vietnam War that was going on at the time.
Fashions among young people began to change dramatically. Many men began letting their hair grow long and wearing bell-bottom trousers. Many young women began wearing their hair long and straight – often with a headband – and usually wore bell-bottoms or mini-skirts.
Prior to the early 1970s, almost no business anywhere displayed signs or dress codes banning bare feet or requiring shoes. I was alive and well during that period, and I was a witness to all I’ve described. I lived in Charlotte, N.C. from about late 1969 to late 1971. I had long hair; I wore bell-bottoms; and I went barefoot everywhere, except at my place of employment.
I was not a hippie; this was just the norm for most people at the time. Signs requiring shoes were unheard of in any business there, and nobody cared if someone was barefoot anywhere. It was a wonderful time to be alive and have the complete freedom to live barefoot if one wanted to.
But some conservative business owners in some parts of the country began getting uncomfortable as they witnessed these changes. One typical reaction was Disneyland’s refusal to admit males with long hair.
As the 1970s approached, opposition and protests against the Vietnam War increased, much to the indignation of many conservative business owners who supported the war as well as the government policies of President Richard Nixon, who referred to the war protesters as “bums.”
Conservative business owners began posting dress code signs to keep out war-protesting hippies
The hippies, their lifestyles, and especially their views were considered very un-American by many who supported the government and its policies. But since our constitution guarantees free speech, it was difficult to stop what was going on. One way that evolved was to attack their mode of dress, which was as unconventional as their views.
Bare feet or no shirts in public places, though not necessarily commonplace before that period, were nonetheless never an issue of health or hygiene or any other reason to ban anyone from entering a business. Sometimes a business very close to a beach may have posted a sign aimed at keeping out swimsuit clad and/or dripping wet or sandy customers. But those signs were not specifically targeting only bare feet or bare chests.
However, as it became apparent that the hated hippies quite often went barefoot, and perhaps shirtless as well on occasion, this unconventional manner of dress gave many conservative thinking businesses an easy way to identify, isolate, and ostracize what many felt was a dangerous political movement.
The idea of banning these undesirables based on their attire caught on, and at some point somebody came up with a cleverly worded sign using the word “NO” in large letters to cover two instances of unconventional attire that would result in not being served. It’s interesting that “shoes,” “shirt,” and “service” all begin with the same letter, and placing the same word in front of each results in a succinct and cleverly alliterative discriminatory dress code.
They probably would rather have used “no entry” or “no admittance” instead of “no service,” but that just wouldn’t have rolled off the tongue quite as well.
In the book The Movement and the Sixties by Terry H. Anderson, in Chapter 5, “Counterculture,” on page 283, the author writes,
Citizens reacted to the hippie threat in many ways. … Businessmen across the country put up door signs, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service, …”
However, it may not have been mere coincidence that this new “NO” sign in three parts strongly resembled similar “NO” signs related to race in prior generations, such as the one pictured in the image at the top of this article. It was perhaps just a repurpose of the same format to fit the new definition of sub-humans not worthy of the same respect and services as those of more conservative appearance were entitled to.
Author James J. Farrell alludes to that in his book, The Spirit of the Sixties. In Chapter 8, “Counterculture Personalism,” (subheading, “Countering the Counterculture”), on page 227, he writes,
Businesses also tried to curtail the counterculture. Even in liberal cities, hippies were, like Negroes a decade earlier, refused service. … Retailers signaled their sentiments with the sign “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
Signs to keep out hippies in the 1970s remained on many businesses after the war and took on a life of their own
Today, the Vietnam War has been over a long time. Barefoot hippies are a thing of the past. Richard Nixon is dead. Yet the signs originally created to keep hippies out of businesses not only remain in one form or another, they have taken on a life of their own, including phony claims of “by order of the health dept. ” or “by law” often added.
In other words, those signs and those attitudes started out as political statements, not dress codes based on any reason that might be claimed today, such as health codes, laws, liability, etc.
Signs posted since the 1970s have convinced current generations to believe that bare feet are bad or even illegal
Currently, the majority of businesses in the United States don’t display those rude, unwelcoming signs. But the few that do or have done so for years have brainwashed millions of people into believing that bare feet are a very bad thing.
It wasn’t a negative attitude against bare feet that started the signs; it was the signs that started the negative attitude against bare feet.
As of the current day in the U.S., generations have grown up seeing those signs and being convinced there has to be something inherently bad about bare feet. Otherwise, why would there be signs? And the signs that also include some reference to the “health department” convince them that bare feet are unhealthy as well.
Of course it would always be nice to know in advance how you’re going to be treated in a store – but having a sign up usually means little to nothing about how you’ll actually be treated. Most such signs are never enforced anyway.
The worst thing about signs is not how they affect one individual barefooter on any one occasion, but the negative message such signs send to the public and every person that walks in the door. Signs against bare feet just reinforce over and over again to everyone seeing them that bare feet are bad, illegal, unhealthy, and whatever other negative connotation the public is likely to conjure up in its collective mind.
The U.S. is the only country in the world where you are likely to ever see a ‘No bare feet’ sign
It’s interesting that during the late 1960s / early 1970s period, though the hippie movement spread to other parts of the world, no other country seemed to experience the same political upheaval and enmity that took place in the U.S. during that time.
So, apparently for that reason, no businesses in other countries began posting signs at that time; so other parts of the world never got brainwashed over the years into believing that bare feet are a bad thing. Today, signs requiring shoes or attitudes negative to bare feet are rare to almost non-existent in other countries of the world.
Most signs banning bare feet are based on ignorance, misinformation, or blind bigotry
Bigotry, which is usually thought of in the context of race or sexual orientation, can mean any intolerant attitude or action toward another person or group that’s based only on strongly held beliefs or prejudices that are not based on any actual fact, proof, or valid scientific studies.
Nowadays, businesses or other public facilities that put up unwelcoming signs, such as “Shoes required,” are almost always doing it not only out of ignorance, but based on blind prejudice and bigotry against anyone who might choose to dress differently from what might be considered the norm.
So, how do you deal with a ‘Shoes required’ sign if you’re barefoot?
What do you do if you’re barefoot and encounter an unwelcoming “Shoes required” type sign when walking into some business? I’ve been doing this (full-time barefooter) a long time, and this is what I’ve found: Most stores with such signs don’t enforce them.
Many of those signs were put up as a way to deny liability “just in case” some injury happened to someone’s bare feet. Which means, they’ve in effect warned you, therefore they can say “We’re not responsible, since we told you shoes were required.”
The best way to find out what a store’s attitude is – whether a sign is posted or not – is to just walk in barefoot. What’s the worst that can happen? They tell you to put on shoes or leave. That’s the worst that can happen. If they do, then you can either try to discuss it with them, or just leave. (I guess there’s another option as well, putting on shoes, but that’s not an option for me personally.) More than likely, they’ll say nothing.
Sometimes businesses can be persuaded to remove an unwelcoming sign they’ve put up if you can find a reasonable person in charge of the facility and logically explain why the sign is a bad idea. I’ve been successful at getting a few discriminatory signs removed in the past.
Most current ‘Shirt & shoes required’ signs originated to keep out shirtless people, not barefoot people
Since most of the signs you may see include the word “shirt,” the fact is that most of those signs have been the direct result of someone finding some problem with people coming in shirtless, not shoeless. I have found this to be true, based on conversations with many business managers who have posted such signs.
But for some reason, when shirtlessness is banned, they think they need to add bare feet to that as well, which makes no logical sense. So, as long as you’re wearing a shirt, I have found that the “shoes required” part is usually not given much importance as an enforceable issue.
Neither signs nor anything else you may encounter is absolute as you live your life without shoes
Having lived barefoot for many years, I’ve found over and over that nothing is absolute in the world of barefooting as related to acceptance and respect from others, especially businesses.
Best thing to do, in my opinion, is just go barefoot everywhere – sign or no sign. You’ll soon find out which stores are friendly and respectful to all customers, and which stores that aren’t.
And that brings up another complication. Many (maybe even most) times it’s not the store itself that may have a negative “policy” and give you a problem, many times it’s only one particular employee who has a bare feet phobia, and who will give you a problem. And in those cases, it may take speaking to a manger to get that issue resolved.
Many enlightened businesses of today know that welcoming ALL customers is the only way to thrive in the long run
Why emphasize what you don’t want?
Better talk about what you (we) DO want.
The (strip) picture of the girls and life in the 70’s should be carved in our minds.
Thanks for your comment. I don’t see this as emphasizing what we don’t want at all. I see it as educating the younger generations and putting these unwelcoming and discriminatory signs into their proper historical perspective so people are better equipped and informed when they come across them or have to deal with them. As to talking about what we do want, note I wrote, “Sometimes businesses can be persuaded to remove an unwelcoming sign they’ve put up. . .” Trying to get these signs removed should be a top priority of every barefooter, as they hurt us as a… Read more »
My experience of North America is largely limited to Connecticut and New York, but here at least I would say that such signs , those once seen on the doors of a small but significant minority of businesses have become increasingly less common over the past twenty years and are now very rarely seen. This might be attributable to current rarity of barefooters. The Betty and Veronica cartoon above is a bit of an exaggeration, but if barefoot teenagers were not actually a majority then, they were a quite sizable minority. When I came to Connecticut in 1987, the barefooters… Read more »
What’s funny to me is, occasionally someone will ask me how I can go barefoot everywhere “with all the ‘signs’ around prohibiting it.” I usually say, “What signs? I very rarely see any nowadays, especially around here.” Which is true. But a lot of people seem to think the signs are everywhere. The problem is, enough signs have been posted in enough businesses over the last 40+ years for most people to assume the signs are ubiquitous and are based on good and legitimate reasons (which they aren’t, of course). As I mentioned in the article, I never saw any… Read more »
Great article, well done!
I have never seen such signs in Russia, and I think they have never existed here. However, some institutions have a written prohibition of bare feet in their rules for customers, to name a few: the Moscow Metro, the Moscow Kremlin Museums, the Tretyakov Gallery.
I don’t know if these count as signs.
A typical sign in a Russian store (if any) would be like this: https://printfiles.ru/raspechatat/zapreschayuschie-tablichki-dlya-magazinov/attachment/tablichka-v-magazine-zaprescheno/
No, I wouldn’t count such restrictions as signs unless they are prominently posted on the front of a facility where they can’t be easily missed by everyone who walks in the door.
That’s why such signs in the U.S. have been responsible for spreading myth and misinformation about bare feet to current generations for many years.
It is remarkable that I have not even seen “no bare feet” signs on escalators in Russia (in shopping centers etc).
You may remember, I wrote an article about escalators a while back, https://borntolivebarefoot.org/barefoot-on-escalators-is-safer-than-shoes/
Here in Colorado, I’ve been told I Have to wear shoes in at least a dozen businesses, so I gave up and just wear them. To much hassle to keep trying to find barefoot friendly places.
Guy, that’s disappointing to hear. And surprising, because I’ve read accounts from a number of barefooters in Colorado that say they usually have no problems being barefoot in places.
I’m curious, when you’ve been confronted, have you made efforts to reason with them, talked to the manager, etc.? Also, would be interested in specifically what businesses have given you those problems, if you’d care to name them.
My wife and I are currently in Fort Myers Beach for both a vacation and to seek out a winter home. In the ten days we have been here I have not worn shoes at all. Have grocery shopped a few times at Publix, picked up a few things four different times at CVS and stopped at a Dollar Tree, Five Below, Dollar General and a couple other stores in the general area of FMB and nobody has said a word to me about my bare feet. I have worn shorts every time so it is very obvious to anybody… Read more »
Thanks for your comment, Jason. I know that some of the stores you mentioned have “shoes required” signs posted on their doors. But obviously, those places have chosen not to enforce them, which, as I mention in the article, is not uncommon.
The racist analogy of the Jim Crow south with banning barefoot hippies is not one I agree with. African Americans have long been treated very poorly by American society, even in the north though not as outwardly blatant. A hippie could never equate their experience to what an African American faced in those horrible times. Even today, African Americans, especially men, are targeted by Police and other authority figures as well as watched closely in stores by bigoted employees and store owners. As far as the hippie argument goes on it’s own merit, I believe it despite being born in… Read more »
Thanks for your comment and your perspective, Neil. Nobody’s comparing going barefoot to other human attributes (such as race), conditions, or choices (as in the case of religion) that have resulted in oppression in the past (or presently) and saying it’s the same in that respect. Nor does advocacy against discriminatory bans against bare feet in any way trivialize those other discriminatory practices and struggles. If something is wrong, it’s wrong. I see no point in saying something like, “This thing may be wrong, but it’s not nearly as wrong as this other thing, therefore it is not important.” Discrimination… Read more »