Van­ity fare

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

Hong Kong Tatler - - Contents -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.