Shoes and boots have long featured in Art, Literature, Film and TV and with a little thought we can all think of examples of the humble shoe being central to some key pieces of work.
Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers in the 1939 film the Wizard of Oz being one example, in the book they are silver but red was considered more impact for the emerging Technicolor technology being newly employed by film studios at the time. The shoes are regarded as major icons of that era of movie making and a consortium of leading Hollywood figures including Leonardo Di Caprio and Steven Spielberg paid a rumoured $2 million to secure them for a new museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 2016 the Smithsonian Museum started a kickstarter campaign to raise $300,000 for the restoration of another pair used in the making of the film. (Gelman, 2017)
We are all familiar with Cinderella and her glass shoe, the story first published in French in 1697 is quite mild compared to the horrors contained in the Brothers Grimm version of 1812 with the step sisters cutting off parts of their feet to try and fit the shoe and being blinded by birds sympathetic to Cinderella by the end of the story. Not at all the saccharine Disney version, made in 1950, that most people and children are familiar with.
Many of the Brothers Grimm tales feature shoes such as the Seven League Boots which enabled the wearer to travel vast distances rapidly, written at a time when the fastest transport available was the horse and that certainly would have been far too expensive for the common man. So the idea of rapid transit was very appealing.
Puss in Boots is another popular character, famously made comic in the Shrek animated films but in the original story is a master of duplicity and violence, conning a king into believing his low born master is a prince and thus allowing him to marry his daughter and murdering an ogre to steal his castle along the way. The shoes give the character a status far above that of a cat – even a talking one.
In all of these tales there are strong morality lessons and its striking how often shoes are used to define or transform characters social standing, so “poor” Cinderella wears wooden shoes, glass shod Cinderella becomes a princess. Puss in Boots master is similarly transformed by his clothing. This theme of stern morality is perhaps most viciously illustrated in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes. The anti-heroine who is the centre of this tale of the dire consequences of sinful vanity, goes to church in bright red shoes, received from a kindly benefactor after the death of her mother. Thus Karen, allegedly vindictively so-named after Andersen’s loathed half-sister, attracts both sympathy as an orphan and condemnation as a sinner, compounding her error by failing to care for her grandmother and is punished by being forced to dance unceasingly for ever. The dancing becomes so persistent, that Karen heads to the town’s executioner, and asks him to chop her feet off with the red shoes on them, while she confess’s her sins of vanity. Her reduced social status is then reinforced by the executioner fashioning her wooden feet whilst the shoes, containing her severed feet continue to dance. (Racked, 2017)
A film based on the story was made in 1948 with the twist that Karen is now a ballet dancer torn between two men.
In All Quiet on the Western Front an anti-war book written by Erich Maria Remarque and based on his own experiences of WWI as an 18 year old. One of the central characters boots become a symbol for how war destroys morality, requiring that soldiers abandon social niceties and think only about their own survival. The boots command as much, if not more, respect and attention than the man to whom they belong, and in this way symbolise the cheapness of human life in war.
“Paul, Muller, and Kropp go to the hospital to visit Kemmerich. The hospital stinks of infection. Kemmerich is very weak. Someone has stolen his watch off his wrist. He will not live long. His foot has been amputated, but he doesn’t know it. The others don’t tell him. They try to be encouraging, telling him he will be going home soon, but Kemmerich can barely respond. Paul thinks of Kemmerich’s mother, who cried when they left home and asked Paul to look out for him. Now, Paul can barely look at Kemmerich’s waxy skin. Muller puts Kemmerich’s things underneath his bed. He sees Kemmerich’s prized pair of boots, more comfortable than what they wear, and asks Kemmerich for them. He wants to get them before they are stolen as well. Kemmerich doesn’t want to give them up, and Paul stops Muller before he can argue. After a while, they leave, bribing an orderly to give him some morphine for his pain. As the walk back to their camp, Muller talks about how nice the boots are. Better that he should have them when Kemmerich dies than anyone else. There is no hope for him.”
In the film version Paul is alone with Kemmerich when he dies, he retrieves the boots for Muller. There is then a recurring montage where each new owner of the boots dies wearing them.
Even though written by a German, the enemy, the book was extremely popular in the UK and USA. It was published in the late 1920’s as National Socialism was on the rise in Germany and was hated for its anti-war sentiments by the Nazi’s who often burned examples of it, and many other titles, at public rallies. It was banned by the Nazi’s from 1933 when they came to power until their defeat in 1945.
James Clavell’s novel and subsequent film King Rat, about allied prisoners of war in a Japanese camp in Singapore—a description informed by Clavell’s own three-year experience as a prisoner in the notorious Changi Prison camp-features a similar scene whereby a dying prisoner wants to “die with his boots on” the doctor looks under his bed to see the boots have been taken so removes his own and puts them on the patient, retrieving them a few minutes later when he dies. Another illustration of how mundane items become significant when all else is gone.(Clavell, 1962)
The symbolic use of shoes continues to this day.
In the short story Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker written in 1929 the testing life of Hazel plays out: she has outlived her beauty, but has to try to keep men happy, partly by wearing high heels – she teeters along “on her aching feet in the stubby champagne-coloured slippers”. Even her attempt at suicide is a failure, and she wakes up dreading having to put the shoes back on again as they have come to represent all that is wrong with her existence.
In 1940 Agatha Christie wrote the aptly named One Two Buckle My Shoe, featuring a brand new patent leather shoe with “a large gleaming buckle”. As it turns out, this is a major clue.
In the 2000’s so called “chick lit” had a reputation for shoes and shopping, and the TV series Sex and the City series made much of the Manolos and Jimmy Choos coveted by the characters.
A 2015/16 V&A exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, suggested that the symbolism of shoes has changed little over centuries – so, for instance, contemporary advertising for trainers implies powers of flight and speed akin to winged sandals and seven-league boots. And shoes in modern children’s literature also convey some of these ideas. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, in which modern-day youngsters are the children of Greek gods and mortals, show Percy (son of Poseidon) fighting Luke (son of Hermes); Luke wears winged baseball boots. (Vam.ac.uk, 2017)