“The Pope, in short, does not wear Prada, he wears Christ.”-The Vatican (2008)
Prada and pope are not two phrases one assumes to find paired in a sentence but they repeatedly surfaced in the media following the sensation caused by Benedict XVI’s red loafers over the course of 2007 and 2008. In fact, the pontiff’s footwear attracted so much attention that Esquire deemed him 2007’s “Accessorizer of the Year,” despite the Vatucan’s objections. The incident can be read as a metaphor for several things, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll dwindle it down to just one concept: the semiotic changeability of fashion. Given that Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale is now on at London’s Sadler’s Wells, I thought it was time to retrace how ruby-coloured footwear has surfaced in the popular imagination over the centuries. After all, red shoes always seem to attract attention, partly because of their brightness and largely thanks to their prominent roles in social rituals, literature and film.
Sacred Scarlet-Ceremonial History
The history of red shoes can be traced back as early as Etruscan Rome, where they signalled their wearer’s noble status. As bright colours were difficult and expensive to produce, red footwear became closely aligned with wealth and social prestige. One of the most exclusive colours of the day “Phoenician purple,” one that ranged from indigo to scarlet, for example, was mixed by extracting the mucous secretion of sea molluscs. Sumptuary laws closely governed who could wear such tones and red eventually became a colour reserved solely for the Roman emperor.
Red acquired additional connotations after the fall of the Roman Empire and with the rising power of the Christian Church. It could signal the blood of Christ, of martyrs and even the fire of the Holy Spirit. The colour also retained its associations with power and was worn by the highest officials; by bishops during certain parts of the liturgical year and by the pope who alternated between embellished velvet slippers inside the papal residence and leather outdoor shoes.
Although papal shoes have changed in make and ornament over the centuries, it was Benedict XVI who drew the most attention for his choice of footwear when the Italian media dubbed him the ‘Prada Pope’ in 2007. The moniker, based on the rumour that the fashion house supplied the pontiff’s red loafers, alluded to what were perceived as the pope’s expensive ceremonial tastes. (It later surfaced that the loafers were in fact custom made by a Roman cobbler.) The shoes’ ability to attract attention illustrates the clash of ancient traditions with modern sensibilities. It is ironic that a symbol of old customs can be so easily misconstrued as a fashionable accessory and undermine the office it was meant to uphold in the first place. Given this conundrum, it is not surprising that the current pontiff has opted to forego crimson footwear altogether to signal his more humble approach to papal leadership.
Red Shoes in Fiction
Red shoes symbolise more than just status. They have appeared as magical objects in films, artworks and books since the late 19th century. According to Hilary Davidson, Hans Christian Andersen was the first to employ crimson footwear as a narrative device in The Red Shoes (1845). A cautionary tale about the transgression of class boundaries and Christian morals, the story centres around Karen, a poor orphaned girl who is adopted by a noble woman. She grows up to be vain and spoilt, traits demonstrated by her desire for a pair of red Moroccan leather shoes worn by a princess. The (anti-)heroine’s fickle nature is comes to the fore when she manipulates her adoptive mother to purchase a similar pair for her confirmation. In doing so, Karen defies what a lady of her class should wear, especially to church. She soon falls under the red shoes’ spell and, as events unfold, it becomes clear that they are linked to malignant supernatural forces. As Karen starts dancing, she finds she cannot stop. Possessed, the young girl is prevented from attending her guardian’s funeral and is cursed to dance forever. Desperate to find peace, she seeks out an executioner and begs him to chop off her feet. Although he obliges, the red shoes-and disembodied feet- continue to haunt her until she is eventually pardoned.
Andersen’s tale suggests a wariness of social mobility but on a deeper level it also reveals an unease with desire itself. The red shoes can be linked to status, transgression and even the blood of Karen’s amputation but ultimately their sinister power represents irrational psychological forces that cannot be contained. Subsequent theatrical and cinematic remakes used this template and amplified the element of dance to infuse red shoes’ supernatural quality with entertainment value. For example, the 1948 film adaptation, starring Moira Shearer, employed a story within a story to link red footwear with obsession and desire through the tragic narrative of Vicky, an aspiring ballerina who becomes successful by starring in a ballet adaptation of Andersen’s fairytale. Forced to chose between her private life and her career- symbolised by the rivalry between her husband and the impressario who discovered her-she elects her love of dance but immediately regrets the decision and commits suicide in remorse. As her dying wish, Vicky asks her husband to remove her red silk pointe shoes in a gesture that mirrors the ballet’s ending and signals the tragic overlap of her fictional and professional obsessions. Scarlet footwear once again surfaces as a supernatural object and as a symbol of destructive desire visually articulated through the Technicolor intensity of Powell and Pressburger’s cinematic retelling.
The Ruby Slippers
Though The Red Shoes had a considerable afterlife in the history of popular culture (they inspired Kate Bush’s 1993 album for example), it is Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers from the Wizard of Oz (1939) that have achieved an enduring cultural legacy. Rumour has it that they attract so many visitors that the surrounding carpets in The Smithsonian need to be regularly replaced. Fans’ continued dedication was recently demonstrated by the museum’s #KeepthemRuby Kickstarter campaign, which raised over $ 300,000 for a high-tech display case in just seven days. As one of the most influential chapters in the history of red shoes, Ruby Slippers have helped cement their association with the supernatural, albeit in more positive terms.
Dorothy’s ‘Ruby Slippers’ are indelibly bound up with the phrase ‘There’s no place like home.’ The sequined heels are the engines of the story: they end up on Dorothy’s feet through no fault of her own but she repeatedly battles the Wicked Witch of the West in order to hold on to them throughout the film. They lead the heroine on a series of adventures and finally help her return home, back to the safety of sepia-toned Kansas. The Ruby Slippers evoke magic, adventure and the comfort of home, but beyond that they also provide, in Christopher Frayling’s words, “a bridge between Depression monochrome and Hollywood Technicolor.” As film costumes that help convey the central narrative, the shoes were designed to help craft an escapist fantasy during difficult years of the interwar economic crisis. Silver in the original story, the heels’ colour was changed to showcase the expensive splendour of Technicolor and to make Dorothy’s footwear sparkle against the Yellow Brick Road. Due in part to these intentional changes, Ruby Slippers have become synonymous with Classical Hollywood’s spectacular, dream-like productions. The very phrase ‘Ruby Slippers’ speaks to this idea and evokes rarity, preciousness and glamour. The shoes’ fairytale quality reverberates in more recent fashion interpretations, such as Viktor and Rolf’s Spring/Summer 2004 pumps or even this year’s Marks and Spencer kiddie sneakers.
Ruby Sneakers-The myth lives on
The cultural meaning of red footwear continues to evolve, shaped by fiction as well as real life. This is a combination that featured prominently in Netlix’s hit musical series The Get Down (2016), where Shaolin’s pristine suede Puma Clydes tell not just the protagonist’s story but also relates to the rise of the sneakerhead.
Set in the cultural and economic upheaval of the late 1970s, The Get Down follows a group of disadvantaged youth, Zeke, Ra-Ra, Dizzee and Boo-Boo, as the elusive Shaolin Fantastic initiates them into the cult of early hip hop. A graffiti artist, street warrior and an aspiring DJ, Shaolin emerges as a mythical figure in the first episode. The character’s carefully coordinated scarlet outfits signal confidence and the ability to express himself creatively. Shao’s personal style commands respect amongst peers to such an extent that even his trademark red suede Puma Clydes are mentioned in hushed tones. Hard to find and even more difficult to keep pristine, the shoes’ association with ambition is suggested in an early episode. When Shaolin introduces his new crew to Grandmaster Flash, the master is seen dusting off his black Pumas with a tooth brush. This detail seems to express a tribal belonging of the aspiring DJ with his mentor but more significantly, it signals the importance of self-discipline and self-awareness for achieving success. Flash’s gesture isn’t only momentous in the fiction of the series, it is also a nod to the importance of sneakers in hip hop’s sartorial vocabulary. As rarefied, almost mystical objects, Shaolin’s cerise suede Puma’s mark a return to red shoes’ origin as a status symbol. The distinction that they signify however is not linked to the wearer’s social pedigree, but rather their ability to master and shape certain visual codes, a capability which in turn suggests superior creative proficiencies.
Red shoes seem often discussed as fetishistic cultural objects in both a Freudian and in an anthropological sense. I think it is the latter that has been especially pertinent to the history of scarlet footwear. Perhaps this is partially due to shoes’ ambiguity as an object; they can be practical, yet decorative, an extension of our bodies and yet separate. As a symbol of status, transgression, desire, magic and even ambition, red shoes have been framed as supernatural artefacts that endow wearers with certain powers. Maybe it’s time I get myself a pair…