CINDERELLA, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes: all these women experienced the potent power of shoes to entrance, seduce and sometimes even corrupt the wearer. Shoes seem to exert a strange and powerful hold over the female psyche — from rites of passage including First Communion sandals, or an ingenue’s first pair of heels, to wedding day white satin slippers; the relationship a woman enjoys with her shoes is even more intimate than with her clothes. Why are so many women obsessed with shoes? Why do we own so many pairs, covet more and don’t even wear half of those we own? Why did Carrie Bradshaw choose to buy so many Manolo Blahniks instead of an apartment? What drove Imelda Marcos to collect 1,200 pairs of shoes?
Maybe it’s because we are never too fat for a new pair of shoes and they possess a unique ability to lift female spirits. As Christian Louboutin sees it: “Shoes transform your body language and attitude. They lift you physically and emotionally.” Our emotive response to shoes may be rooted in the sense of excitement they foster in the female psyche — heels make us feel sexier, slimmer and therefore empowered. The transformative power of shoes is seductive, particularly as you age and many trends become unfeasible, or even foolish. Shoes are simply ageless.
The history of footwear is rich in symbolism and status — their absence can represent humility and servitude, their presence authority and power. As far back as ancient Egyptian times they were emblems of wealth or poverty with the slave population going barefoot; common citizens wearing plain papyrus sandals, and the aristocrats, bright embellished footwear. In places of worship they are commonly removed as a sign of respect: Moses declared in Exodus 3:5 “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou stands is holy ground.” They have also been used to express dissent: shoeing (the act of throwing a shoe at someone) received attention after Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at then US President George Bush in December 2008, in Baghdad. Shoes are considered unclean in the Arab World, so the act was a serious insult.
Shoes and feet have always had erotic and sexual connotations, particularly heels. Femme fatales don’t do flats and stiletto shoes are thought to be phallic symbols. Red shoes, (as worn by Dorothy and as immortalised in fairytales) are vessels of transition from girl to woman, their colour denoting them as objects of desire and symbols of sexual awakening. In fact there is almost always a sexual element to fairy stories or myths about shoes. In Freudian symbolism the shoe is the symbol of the vagina while the foot symbolises the penis. Foot fetishism or podophilia, (a pronounced sexual interest in feet) is the most common of sexual fetishes related to the body and noted foot fetishists have included Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol and the author Thomas Hardy.
To Freud the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding was a form of fetishism. Bound feet or Lotus feet were a cultural phenomenon in China until well into the 20th century — allegedly originating with a concubine with tiny feet in the Hun dynasty.
Painfully tight binding of young girls’ feet to prevent further growth was vital to ensure a good marriage and the tiny feet which resulted were adopted as a sign of refinement and beauty, with an ideal length of 3” or 7cm.
The shoes that women with bound feet wore were heavily embellished with beautiful embroidery and doll-like in proportion. What they concealed, deformed broken and mangled feet were not so attractive.
The oldest version of the Cinderella story comes from China — in the myth, Cinderella’s feet were small and slim compared to her step-sisters so they cut off their toes to fit into the slipper. This idea that feet could be aesthetically altered at will, underscored the binding of feet: women still walked with bound feet but it was very difficult to balance on the sole of their tiny shoes, leading a swaying gait, the Lotus Gait that was considered highly alluring.
Qing Dynasty sex manuals listed 48 different ways of playing with women’s bound feet and some men used the cleft produced by the binding of the foot as an alternative vagina. Binding also had associations with female virtue — women were rendered largely immobile and dependant on their men and their fragility became a symbol of chastity and male ownership.
The Chinese Manchurians didn’t practice foot binding but instead adopted “flower bowl” shoes which sat on a high platform or had a small central pedestal. Later these were thought to be the inspiration for the chopines or platform shoes worn in 15th, 16th and 17th century Europe. They originally were popular for protecting shoes and dresses from soiled streets, but their height came to reflect the cultural and social standing of the wearers and chopines of up to 20” were worn by courtesans and patrician women. Like foot binding they limited women’s mobility and became symbolic of wealth as the wearer needed assistance from two servants to walk. Chopines are considered the first fashion fad and are the precursors to the modern wedge or platform: Hari Kiri heels aren’t a new phenomenon and the car- to- bar shoe is a descendant of these altitudinous heels.
Shoes — functional footwear, fashion statement or female fetish? We walk on them, rely on them to protect us from the elements and we are either aided or impeded by their design. And yet they are also imbued with power: they influence our stance, posture, and overall demeanour. They can make us feel taller, steadier, faster, sexier, even capable of great feats. Shoes are powerfully talismanic — that is why we love them and suffer in their name. Truth be told, regardless of the symbolism, most women can empathise with Imelda and Carrie.
For Autumn Winter 2014, the erogenous zone du jour is long, long liquorice thin legs. It’s not surprising then that boots and shoes are the focus of much attention and excitement this season. The three most directional additions to your footwear wardrobe should be as follows:
With Heidi Slimane at St Laurent, Frida Giannini at Gucci and Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton all chanelling a 1960s silhouette for winter, the Go Go boot, beloved of mods, Twiggy and Biba girls is the boot of the season. It must be slim fitting through the calf, have a gently squared off toe, a low blocky heel and end just below the knee. A front buckle or trim is featured on the gorgeous Gucci version but if your budget can’t quite stretch to these the High Street have great interpretations.
When Karl Lagerfeld showed the Chanel couture with trainers last season it made news headlines and fashion’s fascination with sneakers is still evident for winter. The kookiest are kaleidoscopic, flatform and emblazoned with eye-popping graphics. This snakeskin and gold Preston pair from Jimmy Choo at Brown Thomas are the ultimate in sport luxe.
Next season has a relaxed laid back aura, so slouchy boots are the perfect accessory to all those chunky knits and fluid skirts. Soft, preferably in suede, and nonchalantly squished southwards these boots are the perfect expression of the effortless elegance encapsulated in the comfortable yet luxurious looks that define A/W 2014. They possess an easy-going laid back allure while also making legs look disarmingly skinny. The best designer versions are from Rag and Bone and Michael Kors while Topshop Unique have a lust-worthy grey suede version.
Whether you own 200 pairs or fewer, from Louboutins to Penneys Claire Droney says celebs find comfort sometimes comes before style and brand names
One half of design duo, Lennon Courtney, entrepreneur Sonya Lennon has been obsessed with shoes since she was a teenager. She bought her first pair of Karl Lagerfelds at 20 — and still has them.
“I’m pretty passionate about shoes. I love the femininity, the elegance and the heightening nature of them. I’m a heel girl, because at 5ft 2’, I need that extra elevation,” says Lennon, who attributes her love of fashion to her ‘style queen’ mother, a transatlantic air hostess who would bring back the latest fashions from New York.
“One thing I’d invest in is good shoes. Footwear, bags and jackets are like the outer gilding of an outfit. They need to be bought well,” says the designer, whose personal preferences include Acme, Yves Saint Laurent, Lanvin, AF Vandevorst, Miu Miu and Prada.
However, Lennon didn’t always have such expensive taste in shoes.
“I remember being in third year at school, and saving for a pair of shoes for £50.
“They were beautiful leather shoes with a floppy soft leather bow from Zerep and I had to stuff the insoles because I bought them two sizes too big for me as I was worried that my feet would grow,” she laughs.
Although she has spent over €500 on a pair of ‘magnificent’ shoes, Lennon has curtailed her spending since the recession began.
However, Lennon is adamant that comfort is a priority when it comes to choosing shoes.
“If I buy shoes that aren’t comfortable, I get rid of them.”
For a stylish and comfortable summer look, Lennon advises wearing platforms, or leather ballerina pumps.
* Lennon Courtney have launched their Frockadvisor app, an online tool which allows users to search independent boutiques around Ireland
VOGUE WILLIAMS is reluctant to reveal exactly how much her favourite pair of heels cost — perhaps because her mother is sitting next to her. They are Louboutins though, and were expensive.
However, the down-to-earth model admits to owning over 200 pairs of shoes that are stored in the London apartment that she shares with husband, Brian McFadden.
“I’d love to have a walk-in wardrobe but I don’t. I’m very bad with the shoes and I just dump them around my apartment. Some of them are in a huge big box,” she says.
“High heels definitely make my legs look nicer and they dress up an outfit. I wear heels when I go out and have a few go-to shoes, like my black Jimmy Choo’s that I got on sale for £100,” says Williams.
However, at 5ft 11’, the model doesn’t really need the added height and is happy to wear flats at times.
“If I was just going to the pub, I’d wear Air Max. I steal a lot of my sisters’ runners because she has cool ones,” says Williams, who jokes that she’d love to wear head-to-toe Celine with a pair of trainers.
On her blog www.mynameisvogue.com , Williams champions both high street and designer fashion. She recently wore a H&M dress to her cousin’s wedding and tweeted a photo of herself last week modelling a pair of Zara sandals.
“You can get great shoes on the high street and sometimes I feel like the cheapest shoes are a lot more comfy,” she says.
Not that comfort is always a priority when wearing heels.
“We’ve all fallen in high heels. I used to have a pair of shoes when I was 16 that I wore to death. So much so that one night the heel snapped off,” she laughs.
Zara is her favourite shop for shoes, and she also rates Buffalo, H&M, RiverIsland and is currently awaiting a shoe delivery from affordable Australian designer, Tony Bianco.
For weddings, Williams recommends splurging on the dress and buying cheaper shoes.
* Vogue Williams is currently working on a new documentary Vogue Does the Afterlife to be broadcast on RTE in the autumn.
PIPPA O’CONNOR has been rushing around (in a pair of leopard-print flats) all morning, trying to fit choosing an outfit for her upcoming 30th birthday party in between meetings.
“I found a dress in the last of the sale in Brown Thomas and got some gold Carvela heels to match,” she says, breathing a sigh of relief.
“I’m definitely a high heels girl, and although I’m already tall enough [at 5ft 9’], I still wear them.
“I love how they make you feel and how they complete an outfit,” says the model, who has a walk-in wardrobe for her 100-strong shoe collection.
“My most sentimental pair are probably my wedding shoes,” says O’Connor, whose 2011 wedding to TV presenter Brian Ormond was filmed for a fly-on-the-wall documentary called Brian and Pippa Get Married.
“I originally got those typical satin shoes for about €600 and brought them home and realised it was silly to spend all that money for shoes I’d probably never wear again. So I took them back and got a pair of gold and silver Jimmy Choo’s.
“ I have worn them to lots of events, and they go with everything,” she says.
To complement pippa.ie, her popular fashion and lifestyle blog, O’Connor recently launched a YouTube channel, with the tagline ‘Where Style Meets Real Life.’
“All women want to be stylish. For me it means you don’t have to spend a fortune. I have about five pairs of expensive shoes and I cherish them. The rest are all Zara or Kurt Geiger, and I’ve also got lots of completely cheap sandals from Penneys,” she says.
“Since I’ve had Ollie, I’ve got a permanently sore back, and I definitely feel that twinge in the bottom of my back when I wear them. There’s a couple of pairs of Louboutins that I’ve only worn once. They’re actually not that comfortable at all. They’re car-to-dinner shoes. Saying that, there’s a lot to be said about investing in a pair of shoes,” says O’Connor, whose style icon is Olivia Palermo.
For summer, O’Connor advises that ‘you can’t go wrong with a pair of nude wedges.’
* O’Connor is currently collaborating with Miller and Lamb to design her own line of wedding stationary.