Cinderella, Puss in Boots: what's in a shoe?
Two hundred years ago, when the Brothers Grimm collected their stories, work and travel for the poor required adequate shoes. “After the 30 Years War,” Pullman says, citing Hansel and Gretel, “poverty and starvation were widespread in Europe. You couldn’t do anything without shoes.” Hop O’My Thumb, in the new anthology, is a version of the same tale embedded in grim reality, in which parents are driven by hunger to sacrifice their children.
Few people actually went barefoot in the 19th century, but passable shoes could make all the difference. It is not surprising that they were used by storytellers to represent escape, advancement, liberty, hope. So, Cinderella escapes her drudgery in glass slippers – possibly mistranslated from the French of Charles Perrault whose “vair” (fur) became “verre” (glass). Magical, journey-crunching seven-league boots help the hero of Hop O’My Thumb (and its variation Jack the Giant Killer) to vanquish the giant he stole them from and secure the ogre’s riches.
The shoes the elves make liberate the shoemaker from poverty, and they are set free from the slavery of shoemaking with tiny shoes of their own – rather like Dobby the house-elf in Harry Potter, who is freed with a sock. And in Greek mythology, winged sandals borrowed from Hermes enable Perseus to defeat Medusa and rescue Andromeda.
The new V&A exhibition, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, suggests 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. Magic shoes as a means of escape appear in L Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy’s silver slippers (ruby in the film) are her passport home. Seven-league boots feature in Terry Pratchett, C S Lewis and John Masefield. Jonathan Stroud in his Bartimaeus Trilogy gives them back to a giant, the huge mercenary Verroq who travels scarily fast; and in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle the boots take you seven leagues in whichever direction you step. And it is not, perhaps, a coincidence that the first “portkey” Harry Potter encounters (an object that looks like rubbish, and which transports you magically to far destinations) is an old boot.
Shoes may give you freedom, but sometimes they represent the opposite. Bare feet can be innocence, and shoes experience. Gerda in Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen surrenders her favourite red shoes (prefiguring his story of that name) to the river in order to save Kai: “How well she has got through the world, barefooted as she is.
She cannot receive any power… greater than she now has, which consists in her own purity and innocence of heart.” Tom Sawyer envies Huck Finn the freedom of not having to wear shoes. Given some by the Widow Douglas, he can’t stand to wear them all the time. School shoes and shoes for Sunday best are often constraining, and symbolise the rules that go with them. It is only a step from this to shoes as punishment, also a recurrent fairy-tale motif. In the Grimm version of Snow White the stepmother’s punishment is to wear a pair of glowing-hot iron shoes and dance until she drops dead.
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Andersen, with his punitive notions of virtue and endurance, reprised the idea of shoes that force you to keep moving. In his The Red Shoes Karen is punished for the vanity of wearing red shoes to church by being cursed by perpetual dancing, in shoes that never come off. She chooses to have her feet chopped off, but even then her penance is incomplete. The Powell and Pressburger film (1948) makes loose use of Andersen, though the heroine is punished again for presumption – in this case wanting to practise her dancing skills and also be married.
Compulsive dancing resurfaces in Harry Potter, in the form of the Tarantallegra spell, which Draco casts on Harry in the Duelling Club. Harry Potter also contains a reference to a patient at St Mungo’s Hospital whose shoes take bites out of his feet. This harks back to those punishing shoes – and to the Ugly Sisters, who chop their toes off in order to fit the slipper and win the Prince. Roald Dahl’s Witches echo this. They have no toes, but hide their square-ended feet in pointed shoes.
But there is more still to the symbolism than these recurrent notions of escape and punishment. Fairy tales often express truths about growing up, including the transition to sexual maturity. In early versions, Rapunzel’s visits from the prince are revealed by her pregnancy. Some variations of Sleeping Beauty suggest that her “awakening” is not just a kiss. The psychiatrist Valerie Sinason points out that Freud equates the shoe with the vagina. This creates whole new possibilities for what Cinderella loses at the ball, as well as for the worn shoes that reveal that the Dancing Princesses have been with their princes. It also gives another dimension to red shoes, or shoes that have blood in them – as Karen’s abrasive clogs do before she acquires her new shoes. Sinason says that shoes also keep us above the muck. They are a protection from squalor, terror, disgust, decay and death. At the same time they symbolise loss, because a shoe implies its missing occupant; it suggests absences and ghosts.
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'You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” So runs a passage from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is the epigraph to In Their Shoes. Empty shoes stand in for people. Which is why shoe fetishes, says Sinason, “make up for the terror that something is missing”. Pippi Longstocking wears her absent father’s shoes, which are too big, so they give “wiggle room” for her toes. Her choice of shoes is symbolic of her need to parent herself, standing in for her father. Similarly the prince fetishises Cinderella’s shoe in her absence.
Shoes also express status, elevating us with their platforms and heels. Cinderella’s shoes are so fine her stepfamily doesn’t recognise her when she wears them. A cat in superior boots can convince everyone its master is the Marquis of Carabas.
And of course size matters when it comes to fairy-tale shoes. “A small foot is a sign of refinement,” says Pullman. “It is like the sensitivity of the princess to the pea.” And it resonates with the Chinese tradition of foot-binding, which expressed status but incapacitated women so they could not wander. Surprise, surprise, one of the earliest versions of Cinderella comes from ninth-century China.