Walking round the recent V&A exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, I was struck by the way women can be hypnotised by footwear. For some it is obsessional, a life-long fetish… I know, I’m one of them…
Kenneth Cole had my number when he remarked, “The average woman falls in love seven times a year. Only six are with shoes.”
However, such affectionate mockery only shows that straight men just don’t get it. The magic of shoes eludes them. They believe footwear should be practical or smart. Oh, how dreary…
The comedy writer, Allan Sherman, was more mocking than Cole, but also more revealing: “You want to fall in love with a shoe, go ahead. A shoe can’t love you back, but, on the other hand, a shoe can’t hurt you too deeply either. And there are so many nice-looking shoes.”
Sherman reveals that the uninitiated often regard a love of shoes as some sort of displacement activity. It isn’t. It is very real and wonderful in itself.
Admittedly it is a man, Christian Louboutin, who sums it up best for me. “There is an element of seduction in shoes that doesn’t exist for men. A woman can be sexy, charming, witty or shy with her shoes… A shoe is not only a design, but it’s a part of your body language, the way you walk. The way you’re going to move is quite dictated by your shoes…”
One of the first exhibits you see in the V&A is, arguably, the most famous pair of shoes in British cultural history; the ballet slippers worn by Vicky Page in the classic film The Red Shoes. It’s hard to think of shoes being invested with more dramatic and powerful symbolism than Vicky’s ballet pumps. These are possibly the piece de resistance of the exhibition. They are certainly among the most inspiring and thought-provoking shoes in the world…
And, by God, they are red… blood red, passionate red, dazzlingly red… You don’t need to be acquainted with Goethe’s Theory of Colour to see that these shoes are irresistible.
The weird and striking thing is they would look like an exhibit even if they weren’t in an exhibition. Wherever they were, they would be gorgeous, alluring and separate from daily reality – beauty has that otherworldly way of shearing itself off from its surroundings. By contrast, normal ballet shoes, in all their stained pastel insipidity, call to mind crushed toes, and broken arches.
In the spellbinding movie, tragedy is anticipated from the first frame. It comes to pass, as the viewer fears, by way of the natural passions of an innocent. It’s an uncomfortable film which you cannot take your eyes off.
The climax comes when Vicky, the aspiring ballet dancer (a wonderful everywoman played with perfect pathos by Moira Shearer) is cornered by the inscrutable, chilling, charming, impresario Lermontov. He is Mephistopheles. And he is enraged when Vicky falls in love yet still loves to dance; “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer — never.”
It’s not sexual jealousy. Lermontov is too dark for mere matters of the flesh. He doesn’t want her love. He wants her soul. And he makes her choose between the love of her life and dancing… which is the other love of her life.
Distressed, torn and helpless, she regrets her choice yet is unable to make a choice… so Vicky kills herself – while wearing the enthralling Red Shoes, of course. You don’t merely watch the film, you enter its fable (and consequently you don’t think ‘Hey Vicky, all you have to do is join another ballet company!”). Her demise stirs no judgement, only sadness and love.
The movie is based upon a short story by Hans Christian Anderson who, as a boy, had witnessed an ugly incident between his father and a rich woman who ordered a pair of shoes for her daughter. Anderson’s father slaved over the shoes but the woman rejected them. The father, a proud man, was so incensed he cut them up in front of her, spoiling the silk the woman had supplied and the leather he had contributed. Pride and vanity, the stuff of destruction… Like Lermontov. ‘Best not get involved’ was the message Anderson took.
In the story he wrote many years later, Karen is a vain young girl who puts on red shoes which she then cannot take off. And soon the shoes start dancing and cannot be stopped… Exhausted and demented, Karen eventually has her feet cut off, prays to God and dies soon after. She ascends to heaven in a state of rapture, redeemed by her return to God. She relinquished the red shoes at the enormous price of her feet and Earthly hopes; thus she found peace and God. Even by Anderson’s terrifying standards of moral rectitude, it’s a bit of a downer…
The shoes symbolise for me a free spiritedness – they start dancing when a mysterious soldier flirts with Karen at a party, and she responds; next thing, excited Karen is waltzing through brambles and scarring herself, jigging everywhere she goes, and sadly unable to attend the funeral of her adoptive mother.
It’s not a harsh tale, just cautionary. However, only a man would assume (protectively, kindly) that she won’t get away with enjoying her wild woman ways. Insofar as it is true, it should be read more as a comment on Anderson’s dour society, than a problem for Karen. So she is a bit vain. So she revels in attention. So she is a bit of strumpet. So what?… You really can’t blame a girl for being seduced by those shoes… or more specifically, what they symbolise; adventure…
The short story actually features quite literally in the movie, wherein a ballet of the story is staged. And the two sort of vaguely fuse in Kate Bush’s spooky song and rather shambolic video of the same name. The great Kate does her wide-eyed in a Gothic world thing – dancing herself into eternity with trance-like innocence. Again, it’s sexy and sympathetic. However, it possibly took a woman to portray a girl not perishing after being seduced by the red shoes.
Sometimes it’s easier for men to think of women as little flowers who can never recover from being crushed… it’s quite sweet of them, and well-meaning. But perhaps a tad sentimental. We relish ‘our shoes’, the V&A’s title – Shoes: Pleasure and Pain – celebrates it us perfectly.
By contrast, Cinderella with her precious shoes may work as a role model for little girls. She is certainly virtuous in the face of drudgery and maltreatment; working hard until the one – and only – arrives. Good for her. But no full-on modern woman wants delicate Cinders’ dismal life in a month of Sundays… years of domestic slavery and then one date. Oh whoopee…
Most of the exhibition testified to another subtlety about shoes which men miss; that opportunity for immediate self-expression. It’s not just the opportunity to say “I’m stylish” or “I’m sporty” or “I’m feeling quiet” or “I’m serious” though there are shoes on display which say such things in wonderfully nuanced ways. However, the exhibition also catches that unique and glorious self-expression which shoes offer, meaning the opportunity to wear wild shoes; the opportunity to say, “Look at me, I’m a bit mad! See the shoes? Right off the wall! And yes, I really do love them!”
Perhaps this is because feet are at maximum distance from the face where all sorts of communication must be made and monitored. As Miuccia Prada put it; “Craziness in a shoe is great – you can have much more freedom, you can exaggerate and it doesn’t feel stupid. But to have too much craziness near your face; that would just feel weird.”
Further, shoes are binding pieces of tough clothing. As such they will stir more sensation than any garment. All clothes are soft compared to the brutality of good shoes. Physically, spiritually, sensually, they touch us more. So if they can make us feel great, why be surprised? … Even when you know things aren’t going your way, you can still get an emotional and physical lift from adorable shoes. As Rihanna reflected; “Nicki Minaj has a better booty; but I have better shoes.”