My mother is one of the best-dressed women I know. Not only did she teach me the fundamentals of style (style is what you make it), she taught me to dress for my body type. Mom taught me how to shop smartly, not only looking for price, but also for quality in fabrics, details and tailoring. Mom always looked great (and still does), so what reasons did I have not to follow her advice to the letter?
When I was very young, five or six maybe, (fashion training began early for me), I remember mom telling me that she’d heard a fashion expert say that "a lady never needs a pair of red shoes." According to this expert, red shoes were unnecessary. A few years later I remembered this, but not the reason, so I asked. "Mom, why don't we need red shoes?" Mom gave me one of those looks. "Because red shoes are unladylike. They are worn only by small children, clowns and prostitutes." At age seven or eight I didn't want to be thought of as a small child, I was afraid of clowns, and while I didn't know what a prostitute was or why they were so scandalous, I was sure that I wasn't one of them either. Mom knew everything about fashion, so she had to be right. I never gave red shoes another thought, except when I saw a woman wearing them. When I was really young I just assumed that these women were prostitutes. As I got older I just thought that these red heeled women had no fashion sense.
Some things are just ingrained in us: traditions, values, morals, and in my case, the strong belief that a lady never wears red shoes. This shouldn't be surprising, as red shoes have gotten a bad rap for years.
We can go back to 1845 and the publication of the Hans Christan Andersen story, The Red Shoes. In this story a young girl, Karen, becomes obsessed with a pair of red shoes only to have them have a horrific effect on her life. Early in the story Andersen describes a princess as our heroine sees her. "She wore neither train nor a golden crown, but beautiful red morocco shoes. There is really nothing in the world that can be compared to red shoes!" (I guess Hans realized this fact.) Later young Karen acquires a pair of red shoes for herself. "Amongst the shoes stood a pair of red ones, like the princess had worn. How beautiful they were!" (Hmmm. Perhaps Mr. Andersen once longed for a pair of red shoes himself.) Karen makes the mistake of wearing her new red shoes to church the following Sunday and is reprimanded severely. The next Sunday however, "Karen looked first at the black shoes, then at the red ones; looked at the red ones again, and put them on." This act of defiance turns the entire village against her. When Karen danced in her red shoes it was as if they were possessed by the devil himself as the shoes had a mind of their own forcing poor Karen to dance uncontrollably. As she forcibly dances past the church she sees an angel with a sword guarding the entrance to the sanctuary. He condemns her "Dance you shall," said he, "dance in your red shoes till you are pale and cold, till your skin shrivels up and you are a skeleton! Dance you shall from door to door, and where proud and wicked children live. You shall knock, so that they may hear you and fear you! Dance you shall, dance!" (Scary and a bit heavy handed in my opinion. All of this gloom and doom over one little pair of red flats!) Exhausted she pleads to the village executioner to cut off her feet with the red shoes, since by now they have grown to her feet. As she confesses her sin (?), he obliges cutting off her feet. The shoes dance away with the little feet deep into the woods. I think the ballet has a happier ending as Karen keeps her feet but dances herself to death. All of this because poor Karen dared to make a strong fashion statement. And to think my mother missed reading me this charming uplifting story! Instead of trying to rationalize why a lady never wears red shoes, she just could have scared the hell out of me by reading me this piece of classic literature.
Dorothy in the 1939 MGM production of The Wizard of Oz had her own problems with a pair of red shoes. First off, these shoes were taken off the feet of a dead woman, a "Wicked Witch " no less. A second witch desperately wants them and is willing to kill Dorothy (and her little dog too) for them. A third supposedly good witch tells Dorothy not to take off the shoes, as they must be very powerful. Dorothy must have been too naive to comprehend their power, as she never learns what powers they truly possess. It's obvious, Dorothy Gale, an innocent farm girl from Kansas with little to no fashion sense falls in with a bad crowd and is corrupted, all over a pair of red pumps. No wonder this movie gave me nightmares as a child.
You don't have to go back as far as the 1800's or the 1930's. Remember the fairly recent Showtime series Red Shoe Diaries. The title alone suggest something steamy...something scandalous...something naughty, all because of a reference to red shoes.
Imagine my surprise recently when I started noticing women in red shoes and thinking that they were chic, stylish, and even powerful. Then women that I admired started turning up in red shoes. I saw style guru Stacy London (of TLC's What Not to Wear) on Oprah one day. She was wearing a pair of skinny jeans, then, a new silhouette that many American women were slow to accept, and a pair of killer red heels. She looked amazing. For the first time in my life I found myself wanting a pair of red shoes. I'd keep this desire hidden from my mother, as my desire for red shoes would have killed her. After that I began to see women from all walks of life wearing red shoes. I'd heard Stacy London say that a pair of red shoes could really "pop" an outfit.
But old habits die-hard as it took me a year to finally purchase a pair. I started off small with a pair of inexpensive suede sling backs...and I still considered buying them in black instead. I wore them that very night thinking "now is as good a time as any." Nobody talked behind my back, gave me dirty looks or propositioned me. I was at a casual event and liked the way that my little red heels gave an extra little punch to my jeans and long black cardigan. This touch of color made my outfit "current." I was surprised that I felt no guilt, shame, or tartness. Old perceptions die-hard.
This past summer I bought a pair of casual red flats that I ended up living in. They seemed to go with everything. I purchased the same pair in black, which while worn got less use. Feeling brave at the beginning of the fall season, I took the plunge and bought a pair of red patent leather peep toe pumps. A friend had purchased the same pair and she'd worn them to work with grays and black. This little pop of color made her outfits smart and modern. I figured I could do the same. The very next week I got a pair of deep red patent leather flats that I'm wearing several times a week. Not only are they fun, but they are some of the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn... and that was a bonus! I guess I'm over my phobia of red shoes, or should I say the negative perception of a woman in red shoes. Red shoes can be very ladylike. The look is what you make it. Own it.
I'm heading home for the holidays in December. Dare I bring a pair of red shoes with me? I've changed my thinking. Is it possible that mom can now see this one little fashion choice in a new light, or will she still be seeing red?
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