Shoes in Storytelling

When I say Cinderella, you think…? Maybe the entire story comes to mind when I say, “Cinderella and her glass slippers.” Storytelling has always had interesting modes of transportation, yet it is the interesting ones that capture our attention, not the mundane. Say, something as mundane as a pair of shoes. A shoe is simple and utterly mundane. Due to its simplicity it’s passed over as another detail. I discovered that based off the type of shoes a character is wearing, you can gather a lot about the character and the plot. Sure, discerning class from clothing isn’t a new idea, however, discerning kindness or how the tale will end from such a flippant detail only becomes obvious when a person opens to the idea that nothing is simple or mundane. If a character is wearing shoes (or not wearing shoes), however immaculately described, not only the character’s class but their personality and the general plot are given away.

Let’s begin with a story thousands of years older than Charles Perrault’s Cinderella and a very old –yet very famous– pair of shoes. The god Hermes (or Mercury in Roman mythology) is known to wear winged sandals. He has often been described as “swift footed” (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 214, line 232) and he is the patron god of travel, theft, trade, good luck, and prosperity; his archetype is the trickster. Each of these traits recapitulate the verbs swift and fleeting, both of which are ascribed to Hermes and those who wear his shoes, making Hermes and his sandals embody each other.

Take the legend of Perseus, for instance. Before going into Medusa’s cave, he is given Athena’s shield, Hades’s helmet of invisibility, and Hermes’s winged sandals (283). According to comfychair.org, it is with the aid of Hermes’s sandals that Perseus is able to successfully behead Medusa. “With the aid of the helmet and the sandals, Perseus was able to get within striking range without being detected by Medusa or the two immortal Gorgons. He then used the reflection on the shield to guide his killing blow, and flew off unharmed bearing the head of Medusa.” Enabling Perseus to fly, Hermes sandals provide for a quick killing and swift getaway.
Hermes didn’t always have his sandals, however. As a matter of fact, when he was about two days old, he made his own sandals according to the Homeric Hymn to Hermes.

Then on the sandy shore of the sea he wove wicker sandals-
Marvelous things they were, unthought of, unheard of-
Intermingling tamarisk branches and myrtlelike boughs.
He tied up in a bundle an armful of new-sprouted wood,
Leaves and all, and bound as light sandals securely under his feet… (211)

Later, Hermes tosses his sandals into a body of water named the Alpheus. While sources don’t particularly mention where Hermes got his winged sandals from, we do know that they’ve become a symbol that is strictly Hermes. In this case, such a small thing as a sandal is the character’s identity. Travelers, tricksters, and traders need to be swift. Meanwhile, dreams, magic, and fortunetelling —other trades Hermes represents— are all mysterious things because they cannot be caught; they’re fleeting. Another characteristic of Hermes’s sandals. Whenever Hermes sandals are involved, they offer a significant hint at the story. Why need a god’s swift shoes if one isn’t going to find themselves in moments where one needs to be swift?

Learning that the winged sandals belong to the swift messenger god and paying attention to when those sandals are given away or described in their own right, rather than as the conclusion to an outfit, one can foreshadow the adventures about to occur. Since the shoes themselves belong to the patron god of travelers, traders, thieves, and others, one can also gather the character’s personality. We know Perseus to be a man whom the gods admire, therefore, we can assume he is not a thief. He is, however, largely a traveler, having gone on several other adventures after beheading Medusa, which was his prime task. Not only did Hermes’s sandals allow the reader the foreshadow Perseus’s events, they also showed us pieces of his character.

Cinderella on the other hand, isn’t a god nor does she give her shoes away to let someone else use them, yet similar to Hermes and his winged sandals, the glass slippers are significantly hers. In Charles Perrault’s Cinderella, the title character looses her mother and her father remarries to a heinous woman who has two daughters. Though Cinderella’s father is still alive, her stepmother enlists her Cinderella into servitude. Her father being under her stepmother’s thumb, Cinderella dares not tell him. One day the prince of the land decides to hold a ball in which all of the maidens are invited. Knowing she would never be able to go, Cinderella watches her stepsisters leave for the ball. When they are out of sight, she begins to cry. Her godmother sees her crying and asks Cinderella to grab her a few essential ingredients, transforming them into a coach, horses, footmen, and a driver. At last, Cinderella’s godmother transforms her servant’s rags into a beautiful gown and a pair of glass slippers. The ball lasts for two days and even though Cinderella knows her sisters will not recognize her, she still is kind to them. On the second day, having been invited back by the prince —after their polite conversation the day before— Cinderella drops one of her glass slippers on her run out. The prince picks it up and announces the very next day that he will marry the girl the slipper fits. When the prince arrives at Cinderella’s home, she looks on at her sisters try on the slipper. When she sees it’ll fit neither of them, she laughs, suggesting she try it on. The slipper fits, and Cinderella’s godmother touches her with her wand, transforming Cinderella into the beautiful maiden from the ball. Her sisters threw themselves down at her feet begging for pardon. Cinderella embraced the both of them and told them she forgave them with all of her heart (Perrault).

Out of all the things for a princess to have and lose —out of all the things that disappeared— her shoe is the chosen mode that eventually brings these characters to a happy ending. Cinderella, though beautiful, is admired for her kindness rather than her looks. Similar to glass, she is transparent and vulnerable. Her personality is constant as is shown when she is a kind stranger to her stepsisters who treated her poorly, having given her the name “Cinderwench”. It can be speculated that the reason Cinderella’s shoes don’t disappear is because they fulfilled their purpose. Rather than vanish, they stay allowing the story to finish happily. Imbibed with magic, Cinderella’s shoes fit only her and, not do they only literally fit only her, they suit her as well. She is a kind and gentle creature, her personality and motives are not ones hard to guess, and she is strong to have lived with such a wicked stepfamily even though her father is still alive. In essence, she is glass: strong, yet transparent and beautiful. Her godmother made the slippers especially for her, and the moment a good man who loves her, claims one in effort to find her, the shoe supplies itself as the best roadmap to her.

Cinderella would have never gotten her happy ending, however, if she didn’t change to fit the status of the people attending the ball. To blend in though, Cinderella only needed to change her clothing, not her personality, to be accepted. Often overlooked, clothes tell a society where a person’s social standing is. In Cinderella’s time, shoes symbolized status. For the monarchy, the higher a person’s heels the closer they were to God. Often times, a woman’s heels were so high they were only used for portraits —so the dress didn’t drag— or appearances, not every day use. Men in the monarchy wore heels as well, often only an inch tall. There are a few famous portraits of Louis the XIV, a French king , often posing with his legs showing because he felt the heels made his legs look better. As a maid, Cinderella didn’t have the dress or the shoes. If her fairy godmother had only given Cinderella the dress, she would have passed until someone saw her feet. If Cinderella only had the shoes, however, the issue is where she got them, causing more trouble than if she just had the dress. Why? Because it’s the shoes that say status, not a dress. Dresses can be made and often were for important events in which every citizen would partake, or Sunday clothes. They may not have been as extravagant as a monarch’s, but nicer clothes were easier to come by. Shoes with a significant heel, however, made a person closer to the monarchy. In this way, wearing such a shoe that claimed a person was of equal rank with a monarch was sacrilegious. When the prince found out Cinderella wasn’t of high social standing as she at first appeared to be, his reaction wasn’t surprise or anger. Instead he saw her for who she was and accepted her as is which makes the ending to the fairytale much happier than originally perceived.

Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is a bit different from the Judy Garland film we know. For one, her journey takes her to the Witch of the South having met the Witch of the North upon her arrival. Secondly, her shoes in the book are silver. Not red. To refresh, the story begins with Dorothy, a little girl, who fell asleep in her aunt and uncle’s house during a tornado. When she wakes up, she steps outside to find herself in a new land called Oz and that her house has landed on an evil witch wearing silver slippers who ruled over a village of little people named Munchkins. Just then the Witch of the North floats down and gives Dorothy the silver slippers because she “defeated” the evil witch. It is said the slippers have magic powers but nobody knows what those powers are. The Witch of the North does say, however, that if Dorothy goes to Emerald City she can speak to the powerful Oz who will tell her how to get home. Dorothy goes on an adventure, following the yellow brick road and picking up friends along the way only to find that The Great and Powerful Oz cannot help her. It is then that she goes to visit the Witch of the South who reveals the power of the slippers and only then is Dorothy able to make it home. The shoes wind up falling somewhere over Oz on her way back to Kansas.

Again, we see shoes taking a very serious role, being again in charge of leading the character to their appropriate ending. What I find most interesting is that Dorothy’s magical shoes take a similar, unique material as Cinderella’s. Dorothy’s slippers are silver, not leather; not normal. Magical, silver shoes. The fact that they aren’t gold or bronze leads us again to ask if Dorothy’s shoes are meant to resemble her, like Hermes’s and Cinderella’s shoes do. Taking, for instance, Hesiod’s ranking of the different batches of humans (gold for the best and iron for the worst) it makes sense that Dorothy’s slippers would be silver. Dorothy isn’t perfect, so she would not be gold. Dorothy isn’t violent like Hesiod’s Age of Bronze. She isn’t the worst: she doesn’t hate her family and she wasn’t born with grey hair so she doesn’t fit the iron definition either. Dorothy is a child and her journey requires specific direction, similar to the humans who took one hundred years to mature. Dorothy isn’t stupid. She’s just a little girl trying to get home and we know from her run-in with the Wicked Witch of the West she’s more than capable. In the way of Hesiod’s rank of gold and silver, Dorothy better fits silver than the rest of the metals. This ranking translating to her magic shoes.

What’s more, in order for Dorothy to have gotten the slippers at all she must be a great sorceress as a munchkin thought she was. Originally a flattering statement, this small misunderstanding tells us that Dorothy really did have the power within her all along. She may not be a great sorceress but all Dorothy needed to do to get home was think of it and click her heels. The power to think of home does not reside within the shoes, it resides within Dorothy. She didn’t need to go on that long journey to go home, but she did need to go on it to find out what she was made of, the shoes waiting to be struck together when the time was right.

Why don’t some books talk about shoes? Or if they do, it’s a brief description, usually as a conclusion to an outfit, “…and black peep-toe pumps.” Is it because, as previous stories have shown, the shoe —while simple— tells much more about the story and its character than the author intends? It says a lot about a story and it’s author if the plot can be given up so simply in the description of a shoe and yet manage to hold the reader’s attention. Because as a reader, you want to know what’s going to happen even though you already know the shoes are going to help them swiftly escape, or break, or produce magic.

For Hermes, he and his sandals have a relationship with each other. Hermes was the swift and fleeting god, as such his sandals were imbibed with that power as Perseus demonstrated in his myth with Medusa whereas for Cinderella and Dorothy, their shoes are more akin to tools. Cinderella’s shoe is meant to help the prince find her and Dorothy’s shoes lay in wait until she recognizes the power she has and uses them as her instrument. Hermes sandals are the idolization of Hermes as they represent the god’s qualities and patronages. His sandals are in servitude of the god whereas Cinderella’s and Dorothy’s have one soul purpose and that is to bring their characters to the end of the story. Cinderella loses one of her glass slippers and Dorothy loses her silver ones over the desert of Oz when she’s traveling back home; unlike Hermes’s sandals, their shoes are impermanent. They serve their function then disappear.

Shoes are part of an identification of class. Whether or not a person has them is a good start. Personality can be discerned as well. Cinderella has glass shoes because she’s a simple and opaque character; she’s kind, yet she has this oxymoronic fragile strength. The mode of the story is also easily explained due to the characteristic of the shoe. Perseus is swift and silent thanks to Hermes’ sandals. Dorothy is able to get home because she wears magical, charmed shoes when no one originally knew what the charm on the shoe was. This is just shoes, think of the symbolism attached behind a crown or a ring or a cane. All large hints attached to a simple object beg the question, “What other simple things are we overlooking?”

Thank you for reading 🙂
– M

* Photograph from Salvatore Ferragamo’s fairytale shoe museum in Florence, Italy.

Advertisements

One thought on “Shoes in Storytelling

  1. Baum, Frank L. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum–A Project Gutenberg EBook.”

    Harris, Stephen L., and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology: Insights and Images. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print. 

    Perrault, Charles. “Cinderella; Or, The Little Glass Slipper.”

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s