Why so fascinating, red shoes?

28 September 2011 | By Anna Sutton

In palaces and ballets, on celluloid and runways, red shoes have been turning heads for centuries. Anna Sutton explores their secrets behind their hypnotic allure.

The red shoe: a source of fascination, power and mystery to both its wearer and beholder.

The use of red shoes as a mark of distinction can be seen throughout history across different cultures, but it was particularly pronounced in the French courts. During Louis XIV’s reign, the court was the arbiter of both style and etiquette. Shoes with red ‘Louis-style’ heels were worn by courtiers to distinguish them from other aristocrats. The luxuriously sanguine hue was sourced from the red pigment of the Mexican cochineal beetle. Ironically (and inevitably), aristocrats emulated the look, making it fashionable outside the courts. The style endured until it was scorned by French Revolutionaries in the late 1700s.

Red shoes are fabled, holding a place in both mythology and popular culture. In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Red Shoes” (1845), the vain heroine Karen is driven to dance by a pair of bewitched red shoes, which hound her until she escapes into the afterlife. This morality tale has re-emerged most notably in the technicolour film masterpiece The Red Shoes (1948). Flame-haired ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) dances a ballet based on the fairy tale in a pair of crimson slippers. This story-within-a-story is a parable for the film’s larger themes, which explore the conflict between love and art. Like Karen’s red shoes, Vicky’s slippers never tire: “Time rushes by; love rushes by; life rushes by. But the red shoes…dance on.” In the world of the film, Victoria’s love of dance leads to her destruction.

The ability of red shoes to transform their wearer was given a bewitching spin when Dorothy donned a pair of ruby slippers in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939). Costumier Gilbert Adrian’s glittering creations featured 2,300 sequins hand-sewn onto red silk. The shoes’ surface allure is matched by their depth of meaning; theories abound as to their Freudian and sacred/profane symbolism.

Red shoes have signified power throughout history. They have been worn by superheroes and members of the military, royalty and the papacy. Most recently, Pope Benedict XVI revived the tradition of wearing ruby-red papal shoes, a practice which arose during the Roman Empire – the colour red being associated with the blood of martyrdom. The “Prada Pope”, as he was named by media for his designer tastes, favours red leather loafers. But while the Devil may wear Prada, the Pope’s tastes are more chaste; his shoes are reportedly made by Italian shoemaker Adriano Steffanelli.

In the 21st century, the most enduring legacy of the red shoe can be seen in Christian Louboutin’s lustworthy heels. Their cherry-red lacquered soles send the world a glossy lipsticked kiss with every stride. These instruments of pleasure are pinnacles of red-shoe brilliance, signifiers of wealth and passion whose towering heels literally elevate women – perhaps to the realm of goddesses. Louboutin is revered as a sculptor rather than a shoemaker, and has collaborated with visionaries like filmmaker David Lynch.

Despite the fact that Louboutin had previously trademarked the red heel, his recent attempt to sue Yves Saint Laurent for emulating the iconic flash of scarlet was overruled in the courts – no red light on red shoes, the judge seemed to say. Perhaps some things are too legendary, too ingrained a part of our psyches, to be controlled by law.

There are, after all, earlier examples of red-bottomed heels, including Elsa Schiaparelli’s ‘shoe hat’ from 1937. This collaboration with Salvador Dali consisted of an upside-down shoe, perched over the wearer’s head like the horn of plenty, courting attention with its raspberry-stained heel. For now, it seems, there can be no copyright on witchery. And so the red shoes dance on.