Red Shoes

In April 2011, French designer Christian Louboutin sued American design house Yves Saint Laurent over the latter’s manufacture of red shoes with red soles. In his defense, Louboutin claimed that the use of red soles is his exclusive signature. The suit was thrown out of court, with Yves Saint Laurent lawyers claiming, “Red outsoles are a commonly used ornamental design feature in footwear, dating as far back as the red shoes worn by King Louis XIV in the 1600s and the ruby red shoes that carried Dorothy home in ‘The Wizard of Oz’.”

Depending on the source, there are either four or five pairs of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland when she starred as Dorothy Gale in MGM’s 1939 movie musical The Wizard of Oz. The film was adapted from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In the novel, Dorothy wears a pair of silver shoes. Popular belief has it that red shoes were substituted for silver in the movie version in order to have some fun with the new Technicolor technology and because red shoes would contrast nicely with the yellow brick road.

“The language of clothing is high symbolism and we all, in moments where we need to know this, realize it.” — Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners

Red is the color of passion. It is also the color of danger, anger, adventure, and annihilation. Silver is a calm, receptive, reflective color. Silver symbolizes intuition and inner energy, good things for Dorothy to have. But how does she get to a state of inner peace and reflection without first following the path of enlightenment (yellow brick road) with a great deal of passion while facing adversity along the way?

In red shoes, of course.

“Red Shoes” is perhaps Hans Christian Andersen’s darkest tale. A wealthy old woman adopts Karen, a poor girl who succumbs to the delicious temptation of wearing red shoes. Andersen sets up the girl’s choices so that they are poised between vanity (worse than run-of-the-mill vanity, since Karen delights in showing off her red shoes in church) and duty. She should not seek greater riches than those offered freely and generously by her benefactress; she should gladly live in her gilded cage, demonstrating modesty and submission.

Karen’s punishment, for what has become her overwhelming obsession, is to dance without stopping, until she finally begs an executioner to chop off her feet. The red shoes, with Karen’s bloody feet trapped inside, dance on.

Andersen’s story is a morality tale. On one level, it’s rather straightforward: “Discrediting the attractions of beauty, [Karen] accepts the codes of her community and dedicates herself to a life of hard work and piety.” (The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, edited by Maria Tatar, p. 261).

On the other hand, Andersen’s story is a modernized version of an earlier, simpler folk tale of a poor girl who, prior to being adopted by a wealthy benefactress, crafts a pair of red shoes by herself. This act of making gives the older tale, of which Andersen was surely aware, greater depth.

In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estés examines the older tale, and concludes:

The psychological truth in “The Red Shoes” is that a woman’s meaningful life can be pried, threatened, robbed, or seduced away from her unless she holds on to or retrieves her basic joy and wild worth…[the girl] was poor, but she was innovative; she was finding her own way. She had progressed from having no shoes to having shoes that gave her a sense of soul in spite of the difficulties of her outer life…It does not matter that her life is imperfect. She has her joy. She will evolve.

Whether for status, vanity, creativity, self-actualization, passion–whatever–go for the red shoes!

Image Credit: Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. “Fanny Cerrito. [Lithograph by Haguental] Imprimerie d’Aubert & Cie” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed September 25, 2015.