There’s nothing in the world like a pair of red shoes. —Hans Christian Andersen
I only wear red shoes. The shade and hue may vary from light tomato-red to dark wine, but it’s red. This has been going on for several years, and I’m not sure how long it will last. These are my favorite flats:
There are many reasons I wear red shoes, but here are some of the top ones.
The fairy tale
I never liked the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It’s a caution against vanity, in which a young girl, Karen, is punished for being overly attached to a pair of red shoes. As a child, she has red feet and ankles from the cold. Her parent buy her a cheap pair of red shoes. When her parents die, she wears the red pair to their funeral (they are her only shoes). Karen attracts the attention of an older woman, who adopts her and buys her a much prettier pair of red shoes. She becomes obsessed with the shoes, wearing them to church despite being told not to, and preferring occasions for wearing them to more serious obligations.
One day the shoes are cursed by an old soldier, who tells them, “Never come off when you dance,” just before Karen goes into church wearing them. She is distracted during the service by them, and when she emerges her feet begin to dance. Karen can’t control the dancing, which behaves contrary to her desires and will not stop. She is unable to enter buildings and unable to rest. She has a vision of an angel further cursing her for her vanity, dooming her to “Dance in your red shoes until you are pale and cold, and your flesh shrivels down to the skeleton.” Eventually Karen begs the town executioner to chop off her feet, so she can stop dancing and ask forgiveness for putting the shoes ahead of God. The executioner does so. The shoes remain attached to the dismembered feet, and run off into the forest. The executioner provides Karen with crutches and wooden feet to replace her own feet.
When Karen attempts to return to church, the dismembered feet and shoes block her way. She becomes repentant and somber, and takes up a position working for the parson. But she cannot return to church. One Sunday, while everyone else is away, she has another vision of the angel. She is forgiven. She dies and goes to heaven, where no one mentions red shoes.
While I agree putting a pair of shoes ahead of family and spiritual needs is foolish, it was clear to me that this story was not about vanity, but about becoming too invested in something associated with her parents (the original pair of red shoes, the cold red feet), and which arguably saved her from poverty and hunger after her parents died, by attracting the attention of the older woman. The shoes were too important to her, but this was a natural result of the trauma and dramatic change in her life. Andersen was a good natural psychologist, and the story makes it clear that it was overdetermined that Karen would develop this obsessions. But chopping off her feet wasn’t the answer. Someone needed to make it clear to Karen she wasn’t valued for red shoes or appearance, but for herself.
I wear red shoes because I do not believe in punishing people for standing out from the crowd.
A few years ago, I re-watched The Red Shoes (1948, Anton Walbrook, Moira Shearer). In it, Vicky Page, a prima ballerina’s breakthrough performance occurs playing the lead in a ballet performance of The Red Shoes. Page has an exceptional talent, which director Boris Lermentov wants to develop so that she can fulfill her potential. But Page falls in love with the ballet’s composer, Julian Craster, and must choose between marriage and her career.
Page replicates the fairy tale in her life, by being unable to step away from her art and the ballet (which requires she wear red shoes, of course). Eventually the pressure is too much, and she flees the theatre the night of a premiere, leaping to her death while wearing the red shoes. Dying in her husband’s arms, her last request is that he take off the shoes. The troupe performs the ballet anyway, dancing around a pair of still red shoes, turning her lack of presence into a memorial for Page.
Every time I watch this, I wonder if it was a deliberate piece of feminist art, or accidental. It’s played straight: no one questions whether it’s appropriate for a woman to be forced to choose between her love of her art and her love of a man. Today, while there still exist many challenges for women, it is at least possible for a woman to be married and have a career in this country. (In fact, it’s economically necessary for the wife or mother to work in many families). Advances are being made in countries where the woman’s role is much more restricted.
It was after this viewing I began wearing only red shoes. It’s a reminder to be grateful I live in a time and place where no one asks me to choose between my husband and my career. It’s not always easy, but at least it’s possible.
The color combinations
I don’t have favorite colors, I have favorite color combinations. My theory is that there are no bad colors, only bad color contexts, and occasionally wonderful ones. China blue and chocolate, gray and gold, tomato red and avocado greens (inside and out), violet and copper, cerulean and spring green: all have entranced me at different times.
The challenge of wearing only red shoes makes dressing a little more fun, and gives me the opportunity to indulge some unorthodox color combinations.
Red shoes keep me out of trouble…
…In shoe stores, that is. There are many delightful shoes, but most of them are not red. This protects my pocketbook. It also keeps me focused when a particular shoe need arises (flats suitable for work, for example).
Highlights from my closet: