Sole Desire

In 1956, Elvis Presley set the relationship parameters for his ‘Honey’. She could drink his liquor, steal his car and slander his name, but she would overstep the mark if she ever stood on his blue suede shoes. David Bowie was more concerned to have fun when he exhorted his fictional femme fatale to put on her red shoes and dance the blues in 1983. But crankiness about footwear has remained a dominant theme in songs. In 2007, Kate Nash expressed annoyance that her good-for-nothing boyfriend had vomited on her trainers, which she had purchased the day before. Alas. As Lysander laments in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the course of true love never runs smooth.


There’s something compulsive about shoes. Our interest is nurtured from birth. As adolescents and adults we empathise with musicians’ footwear meditations, but only because we learned about the significance of shoes during our infancy. Heroes and villains from literature and poetry are remembered because of how they were shod, from Cinderella and Puss in Boots, to Dorothy and her nemesis the Wicked Witch of the West. The Old Woman probably tops them all, for she lived in a shoe. Another source of childish entertainment – or mild horror in the case of my sister and me – are clowns, whose impossibly large shoes are a cause of endless mirth and merriment. Or terror.

Putting Your Foot Down

Shoes claim our attention because they enable us to maximise the physical potential of our bodies.[i] Well shod, we can walk, run, dance and labour. Poorly shod, we are rendered incapable and defenceless, as the battlefields of many nineteenth-century conflicts and the trenches of the First World War, can attest.[ii] Unshod, we are conventionally considered impoverished. The practical significance of footwear explains its figurative power. To return to songs, there are many that specifically mention shoes, but there are many more that refer to journeys and travelling and treks, whether for love or to realise a long-held dream. The way we typically think about, and express, the pursuit of goals, however abstract this may be, derives from our appreciation of the enabling power of footwear. When embarking on something momentous, we are typically advised to take one step at a time.


Shoes, like any item of clothing, can talk and designate personal preferences. In the 1950s, suede shoes seem to have been almost synonymous with homosexuality, although this meaning has long since faded.[iii] According to Alan Flusser, suede shoes, popularised by the Duke of Windsor, are now merely casual.[iv] The phrase, ‘to be light in/on your loafers’, which is rarely heard today, referred to a man’s effeminacy and, by implication, raised doubts about his sexuality. That said, I’m not aware anyone thought Elvis Presley’s ‘Honey’ was a man when he sang about pastel coloured loafers in 1956? Provocative the suede shoe may have been, but it had nothing on the red shoe.


The majority of clothes talk, but throughout history red shoes have screamed. Since the medieval period, they have been worn by princes and pontiffs.[v] King Henry III of England (1216-1272) was buried in his red samite coronation garments, of which a complete listing survives. The regalia inventory describes a pair of red embroidered samite slippers, decorated with stones.[vi] His successors, including Henry VIII, followed suit. Red-heeled shoes were worn at the court of Louis XIV (1643-1715). According to Philip Mansel, the expression talons rogues ‘became a synonym for French courtiers’ futile insolence.’[vii] Only well-heeled members of the French aristocracy were entitled to wear red in this manner. Christian Laboutin, whose shoes are recognised for their red soles, as much as for their striking designs, has adopted this provocative signifier. But it is really women who have explored the full meaning of the red shoe, through dance, song and word.[viii]

Shoe Lore

Shoes are physical, and thus psychological – and ideological – facilitators. The point is illustrated (literally) by Alice Pattullo, who has produced a limited edition hand screen print, The Curious Attributes of Shoes (of which number 99/200 hangs in my bathroom. Pictured below).[ix] In the West, we might be familiar with the notion that a bride should put a coin in her left shoe for luck. In Sweden, the coin placed in the bride’s left shoe is silver. Her mother places a gold coin in the right shoe, to ensure she will never go without.[x] A series of nails hammered into the left heel of a boot in the shape of a cross will help to ward off evil, or more specifically, the Devil. This idea, which is recounted in The Adventures of Huckleberry Fin, presumably derives from the practice adopted by labourers, who added nails to their heels to give their footwear greater traction and thus increased utility. It is bad luck to burn old shoes, but good luck to wear odd shoes. To replace oddly matched shoes with a pair will bring bad luck. Pattulo’s print contains other gems. It is hard to identify another item of apparel that is as socially, and culturally, significant as the shoe.


Stepping Through Time

But shoes can also be insignificant. They encase a part of human anatomy that is often regarded as ugly or ungainly. They can be unnoticed in a busy crowd, covered (in part or total) by other clothes and they are frequently omitted from paintings and photographs. This probably explains why beards, loos, and recently eyebrows, have all been used as barometers of changing cultural tastes, whilst the ubiquitous shoe has not.[xi] Styles of shoe inevitably vary and at any given time many will be available on the market. Nonetheless, it is possible to trace societal attitudes through broad patterns in footwear. Here’s my attempt:

poulaine: museumoflondonprints.comThe cosmopolitanism and confidence of the fourteenth century is perhaps best typified by the poulaine, a slipper-like shoe characterised by its long pointy vamp.[xii] The length of the shoe’s ‘pike’ grew to some extraordinary proportions and often curled back on itself. Critical commentators likened it to a scorpion’s tale. European rulers issued sumptuary restrictions that eventually curbed courtiers’ enthusiasm for this ostentatious design.[xiii] “Horned shoes” or “cow’s-mouth shoes” could represent the commercial expansion of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Depicted in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, these shoes were commonly seen on the feet of the (wealthy) town dwellers who were assuming an increasingly important role in society and politics.[xiv] The (high) heeled and bowed shoe of courtiers and aristocrats, or perhaps the ‘bucket-top’ boot of cavaliers, could reflect the insouciance and increasing insecurity of the seventeenth-century Ançien Régime.[xv]

neale-hi-shine-blackEighteenth-century styles in footwear do not appear to have changed dramatically, although paintings depict a preponderance of buckled shoes, which reflects, at once the decadence and increasing decorum of this period. The nineteenth century would have to be symbolised by the soldier’s boot, as internecine conflict marred much of this period. The black Oxford could signify the growing preponderance of white-collar workers in the twentieth century, or the increased importance of diplomats who sought peace among divided peoples. These choices are necessarily selective – and only focus on men’s footwear – but the importance of the shoe cannot but make it a symbol of times past.

Men’s Shoes

Such is the recognised utility and significance of the shoe that it is probably one of the few items of their wardrobe that men can justifiably fawn over. The care and attention revealed by highly polished shoes is permissible, probably because of the associations of military-like pride and routine.[xvi] Shoes are also an item of apparel with which men are more inclined to experiment, as buoyant interest in brogues – probably inspired by the forthcoming Gatsby movie – reveals.[xvii] Recently, many cordwainers have launched co-respondent shoes (shoes made from contrasting colours and grades of leather, or other materials), perhaps in anticipation of summer, and prestigious brands like John Lobb have teamed up with Paul Smith to produce a range of brightly coloured derbies and oxfords. But as with many of the clothing items that men spend much of their money on – watches and leather accessories, in particular – it is notable that the shoe’s function is eminently practical, whatever colour its laces. Powerful though it is, even the shoe has limits when confronted with men’s ingrained sartorial hang-ups.

[i] G. Riello & P. McNeil, ‘A Long Walk: shoes: people and places’, Shoes: A history from sandals to sneakers, ed. G. Riello & P. McNeil (London, 2006), 2-29.

[ii] A. Matthews David, ‘War and Wellingtons: military footwear in the age of empire’, Shoes, 116-137.

[iii] C. Lomas, P. McNeil, S. Gray, ‘Beyond the Rainbow: queer shoes’, Shoes, 290-305.

[iv] A. Flusser, Clothes and the Man: the principles of fine men’s dress (New York, 1991), 102-103.

[v] H. Rochell, ‘Let the Devil wear Prada – the man in the Vatican was dressed by Christ’, The Times (12 February, 2013), 6-7.

[vi] B.L. Wild, The Wardrobe Accounts of Henry III (London, 2012), 155-156.

[vii] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: royal and court costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (London, 2005), 15.

[viii] H. Davidson, ‘Sex and Sin: the magic of red shoes’, Shoes, 272-289.

[xi] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 65-68, 170-176.

B. Cole, ‘Across the brows’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (6/7 April, 2013), 4.

[xii] M. Giuseppina Muzzarelli, ‘Sumptuous Shoes: making and wearing in medieval Italy’, Shoes, 67-68.

[xiii] L. Vass & M. Molnár, Handmade Shoes for Men (Cologne, 1999), 56.

[xiv] Ibid., 56-57.

[xv] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (London, 1969), 109.

[xvi] A. Matthews David, ‘War and Wellingtons’, 119.

[xvii] T. Stubbs, ‘brougish charm’, 84-85.

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