The history of comfort can tell us about our world. Along the way, it picked up a reputation as a bit of a luxury. But it’s fundamental to our wellbeing. And it’s about time we reclaimed it
As nice things go, comfort has had a bad rap. At work, we are told we should get out of our ‘comfort zone’. We are said to have ‘got too comfy’ in our roles, like it’s a bad thing.
But just how did we get tricked into being sold the idea that comfort is something sinful, decadent or derogatory? Something which was standard for the nobility but which the rest of us were simply not supposed to want?
The answers go back into the ancient world and provide a fascinating insight.
The word ‘comfort’ originated in the Latin of the later Roman Empire. Confortare meant con-fort, or ‘with strength’: to strengthen or fortify something or somebody. A general would be ‘comforting’ his troops by firing them up with a stirring speech on the eve of battle and ensuring they were well fed and rested.
Comfort kept this sense well into the Middle Ages in Europe, with the teaching that the virtuous life was one of constant toil, and comfort could only be found in the arms of religion. By 1200, it meant the feeling of relief in affliction or sorrow, solace or consolation.
Yet as the Industrial Revolution swept Europe, something odd happened, and comfort took on a decidedly physical dimension.
Clocks entered the lives of the fast-growing populations of cities and towns for the first time in the shape of factory alarms and works sirens. Those workers toiling on their feet in polluted mills for 16 hours a day craved that strengthening feeling. And around that time, the meaning of comfort changed to a ‘state of tranquil enjoyment’ (1770) and ‘physical ease’ (1769).
Yet for the factory owners, their workers’ sleep and restful fortification were not things that shored up their profit margins.
It’s little wonder that the pejorative term ‘comfort zone’ was originally coined by business management theorists in 2009 to define how people are at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress. They then labelled these feelings as negatives, simply because this state supposedly made striving and innovating for the company feel less urgent.
The meaning of comfort changed during the Industrial Revolution.
In praise of comfort
If one word can trace our slow separation from our right to comfort, its history can also tell us that it’s about time we reclaimed it.
The Covid pandemic has demonstrated that the patterns of our lives are as closely bound up with our wellbeing as they are with our productivity and performance.
It has seen companies embrace hybrid working, appreciating that allowing staff to work from home hasn’t led to a dip in productivity.
The combination of security, resilience, low levels of stress and calm control that factory bosses and business analysts have tried to talk us out of is increasingly revealed as a fundamental principle, not just of physical health and our ability to live fuller lives, but of our mental wellbeing, too.
The comfort revolution
That’s one reason ECCO’s values align with a new movement, Comfort Activism.
It believes that comfort isn’t something to be taken for granted, that we should all have access to comfort’s mental and physiological benefits. So, we’re actively campaigning for comfort as the key to so many other aspects of our being.
And it’s a movement that’s gaining traction around the world.
With the pandemic, a quiet revolution took place in clothing and footwear, furnishing and tech. Globally, we have seen consumers radically re-embrace comfort. We have begun using and wearing things that feel better for us. Uncomfortable, formal office wear and demanding high heels have both seen huge dips in sales and are not expected to recover.
The manifesto is becoming clearer and championed by comfort activists worldwide. In Japan, the #KuToo campaign – a play on words from the Japanese kutsu, meaning shoes, and kutsuu, meaning pain – is highlighting gender discrimination by challenging employers who demand that female workers wear high heels.
The coming change
It’s a good time for change. ECCO is already committing to making shoes that have comfort built in as standard. Sara Rödel, Design Studio DK. Concept Manager at the ECCO Design Studio, doesn’t believe that style needs to come at the expense of comfort.
ECCO, she says, can make heeled shoes and boots that are faithful to the company’s comfort promise, as it challenges the conventions of traditional shoe making. “We’re sensitive to the anatomical shape of the foot,” she explains. “Traditionally, shoes are made using a last – the 3D form around which a shoe is designed – that has a flat bottom, where the sole is fixed with glue and/or stitching.
“That’s where we do things differently. An ECCO last mimics the natural anatomy of the human foot. The soles are injected onto this naturally profiled last. So, in effect, the profile of a person is programmed directly onto the profile of the sole. We call it Fluidform, or direct comfort technology.
“For shoes with higher heels, we have developed a modification of this technology where we have an anatomical support shank that supports the foot in motion. The sole is injected over the construction and blends itself into leather to create a flexible bond. This produces a shoe with a much stronger bond between the sole and the upper and makes the shoes softer and more flexible.”
ECCO’s position is quietly revolutionary. It has created a five-point manifesto of how it is going to try and help, with your assistance, to spread the word about this idea of wellbeing.
ECCO’s COMFORT ACTIVISM – A 5-POINT COMMITMENT
Comfort will be crafted From sneakers to high-heeled boots, our designs are anatomically sensitive, putting the foot first. This is the core of our creative process.
Fit and function first We focus on clear-cut, functional design – and comfort is the key factor.
Technology that helps We’ve mastered direct-injection technology so there’s no need for glue or stitching. This creates a flexible shoe fitted to the contours of your feet.
Out-of-the-box promise Our shoes don’t need breaking in. They’re comfortable from the very first step.
Long-life comfort All ECCO shoes are crafted for long-term wear and will remain comfortable throughout their lifetime.