From Chinese foot-binding to sculptural scarlet-soled heels, Stephen Short charts humanity’s obsession with the shoe— and the power games, gender imbalances and societal trends that dictate our footwear fetishes
From Chinese foot-binding to those sculptural scarlet-soled heels, we chart humanity’s obsession with the shoe
French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, when asked about the favourite moment of his more than 20 years in the business, lights up as he recollects:
“I was in my shop a long time ago and there was this Spanish woman, not specifically attractive, just okay. And she put on a pair of high heels, adjusted herself and she grew—she loved herself. She turned to me and said, ‘That’s much better than a facelift!’ I thought that was a real compliment and I can understand her. The body language was different. Breasts out, back straight—she looked great. After all, what is a facelift apart from trying to look younger? And the shoes did it.”
Beautiful, sculptural, highly sexualised and sometimes agonising, shoes are more than mere accessories. They’re powerful indicators of a wearer’s gender, class, status, identity, taste and even sexual preference. Shoes are both commodities and aesthetic artefacts. Feet are made for walking, but shoes may not be and, throughout the centuries and across cultures, impractical footwear—for both men and women—has denoted a privileged and leisurely lifestyle. Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, showing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London until January 2016, puts the status of shoes under the microscope as objects of desire, globally and historically.
Shoes are deeply embedded in our psyche from childhood, be it Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes or Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz. One of the oldest shoe stories concerns Cinderella, whose footwear elevated her social status from basement skivvy to ball glamorista. The slipper-test motif, in which a potential bride is identified by trying on a shoe, can be traced back to first-century Egypt, where an eagle picks up the gilded slipper of Rhodopis and drops it at the Pharaoh’s feet; he will not rest until he marries her. Then there’s the ninthcentury Chinese story of Ye Xian, who makes her beautiful shoes of silk and gold thread, partaking in the Chinese valuation of exquisite embroidery as a womanly virtue. Her shoes showcase both her tiny feet and her successful training in culturally appropriate femininity.
Today, red high heels as magical, erotic and desirable commodities are the apotheosis of active, full-throttle femininity, and the touchstone for ambiguous social reactions to confident women, whether femmes fatales or CEOS. The lipstick-red heels on the striking poster for the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada embody the ruthless, yet deeply admired, fashion magazine editor to which the title refers.
However creative we may think our times, there’s nothing particularly new in shoes; we continue to shift through various cultural predilections at differing times in history as though trying on sizes. In sixthcentury BCE Greece, sculptures of idealised female beauty known as korai often featured platform sandals. Elaborately attired, korai stood in stark contrast to their counterparts, the kouroi, whose idealised masculinity was conveyed through unadorned nudity. Likewise, Greek sculptures of the goddess Aphrodite, the most beautiful and desirable of all females, often featured tall, thick-soled footwear. She may have been a paragon of female beauty, but she was not a paragon of feminine virtue; much of her attractiveness lay in her frivolous, deceitful qualities, exemplified in part by her seductive use of footwear. These tensions are also reflected in ancient Greek commentaries concerning actual women and their use of platforms. Many Greek fashionistos denigrated women
for wearing thick-soled footwear and accused them of attempting to entice men by appearing artificially tall.
Historically, footwear has been the privilege of the affluent or, as in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, the prerogative of the ruling class—slaves were not permitted to wear sandals as their masters did. Shoes were symbols of domination, from the redheeled men’s shoes of Louis XIV’S court to the black platform boots of Mandarin officials of the Chinese emperor, and to the elaborately embroidered moccasins worn by the Iroquois elite. The insole of a papyrus sandal dating to the late Pharaonic period or early Roman Egypt has been embellished with near-pure gold, an emphatic statement about the wearer’s appearance and status.
Notable, too, is the shape of the sandal, which bears little relation to the physical shape of the human foot. The outline of the sole is narrow and symmetrical, creating an idealised shape. Shoes are the best example of fashion that ignores anatomy, often distorting the feet. Today, even shoes that claim to be ergonomic have rounded or square toes, not reflecting the natural arrangement of the foot in a further reminder that the aesthetically pleasing has nothing to do with the practical and functional. And that’s not a modern conceit. Shoe finds from medieval archaeological sites in London reveal leather shoes with fashionable, extremely narrow and pointed toes. Similar finds from the 15th and 16th centuries reveal that impractical shoes worn by the court and the elite, made in satins and velvets, were filtering down quickly to the middle classes—albeit in leather.
And then there’s elevation—height—the most notable signifier of status and identity. The pedestal-like chopine of late 15th- to early 17th-century Europe, favoured in Italy and Spain, transformed upper-class women into towering figures who used maids as human crutches. In Qing-dynasty China (1644–1912), elite Manchu women wore high, centrally heeled shoes that produced a distinctive swaying walk, while men wore shoes with stacked platforms. The geta, the traditional wooden clog worn in Japan, became richly
tall TALE Below: A pair of shoes by avant-garde designer Noritaka Tatehana; Opposite page from top: the Ballerina Ultima by Christian Louboutin; a display at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition