Hila Shachar ponders the timeless appeal of The Red Shoes. Scroll down for the styling, and look out for more of Hila’s musings and stylings soon.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) is an iconic film about a ballet dancer torn between her art and the man she loves. Starring Moira Shearer as ballerina Victoria Page, the film has become a cult classic.
Part of what makes The Red Shoes so memorable is its aesthetic. Like many classic ballets, the film is an adaptation of a traditional fairy tale: ‘The Red Shoes’ by Hans Christian Andersen (1845). Its fairy-tale beginnings are closely tied to an expressionist aesthetic of lurid colours and dissolving figures. Throughout the film, we are presented with otherworldly, dream-like images straight from the pages of fairy tales. Yet these are not innocent images, but ones that emerge as sinister dreams from the mists of the unconscious mind. In one scene, Victoria is crowned with jewels like a princess. In another, she dances on stage in a ballroom adorned with dissolving bodies holding candelabras, like an image from an expressionist painting.
This merging of beautiful fairy-tale dreams with nightmare depths is similar to another well-known film of the time: Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Charles Perrault’s Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, La belle et la bête (1946). Both The Red Shoes and La belle et la bête were made after WWII and display a post-war aesthetic characterised by a fixation on the unconscious mind, disembodied body parts and dreams merging into horror.
But the vibrant, jewel-like colours and romantic red-headed heroine of The Red Shoes also speak of another artistic tradition: the Pre-Raphaelites. Victoria is a modern version of a favourite heroine of the Pre-Raphaelite artists: doomed Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are countless paintings of Ophelia by the Pre-Raphaelites, and most tend to focus on the moments before her suicide, as she collects flowers by the river in which she drowns. One such painting is John William Waterhouse’s Ophelia (1905). Both a symbol of death and thwarted passion, the gloriously red poppies in Ophelia’s hand match Victoria’s red shoes, which likewise symbolise her eventual death.
In contradiction to its excessive tragic beauty, The Red Shoes is also a hallmark of simple style. When she’s not in gauzy costumes and dazzling gowns, Victoria sports an array of classically chic clothing: a simple button-down shirt, a tasteful navy blue-and-white outfit, black leotards and French stripes. In her toned-down apparel, she embodies the classic appeal associated with ballet. To this day, ballet is linked with all things simple, stylish and chic, such as the timeless appeal of ballet flats, a sophisticated bun and the cool black of leotards.
The Red Shoes combines all the aesthetics traditionally associated with ballet: sumptuous beauty, fairy-tale imagery and classic simplicity. Victoria’s look is never out of style and she remains one of the most timeless ballet-film heroines.