A great pair of shoes can take on magical powers for the women who wear them. In “The Wearing and Shedding of Enchanted Shoes,” Isabel Cardigos, wrote, “Shoes are paradoxical objects in that they constrict feet and yet free them to cover greater distances in space.”
Using different examples, Cardigos supports her argument that, in fairy tales, shoes for women are usually harsh ways to limit and restrict freedom and self-definition. As far as male footwear goes, ‘heroes wear seven league boots, or boots that take them wherever they wish, to be put on and taken off at the owner’s pleasure. In other words, boots give them the freedom and mastery of space, and no constriction whatsoever. There is no paradox in shoes as worn by heroes, they are just extensions of male freedom in adventure.’
The quintessential story of a woman using magical shoes to ascend the social ladder on the arm of her man is the tale of Cinderella. The eye-wateringly high cost of designer shoes reveals the ancient roots of the importance of shoes, now literalised and trivialised in sneakers that cost over 50k zar, and high-heels shoes that cost millions.
The red shoes
In the story of the Red Shoes, a motherless girl, Karen, has a beautiful pair of hand-made red shoes which she loves, and loses, when she is adopted by an old woman. The girl loses her very own, hand-made life, represented by the self-made red shoes. The story has various layers of meaning. For one, what the girl lost was her modesty and appropriate behaviour towards the gods. Her adolescent arrogance makes her careless. She longs for the return of her red shoes. She buys a pair of red shoes in secret, and slowly but surely, the red shoes take possession of her until she cannot stop dancing wildly, leading her to the executioners door, begging to be released from the ‘devils red hot shoes’ by asking her feet to be cut off. In some versions, she dies, and now will ‘go to serve God’. In other tellings, the executioner fashions her shoes of wood, returning Karen to her lowly rank. Either way, hubris gives way to humility.
In the fairy tale, The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces, twelve daughters of a king descend to an enchanted underground realm where they dance with imaginary suitors and return home with their shoes destroyed. The theme, in many variations, is about the conflict of a woman’s creative and autonomous spiritedness, against what society and patriarchy expect of her.
Magical shoes sometimes serve as cruel, patriarchal crucibles, making women perform gruesome tasks to atone for perceived sins. Shoes made of iron often signify “both persistence and self-sacrifice,” again, “always a test the heroine must pass in order to access heterosexual bliss with the prince or king.”
In a Bulgarian tale about a “disenchanted husband,” the female protagonist is given away by her father to marry a horse. That evening, in the horse’s stable, the horse transforms into an attractive young man, and the two get busy doing what newlyweds do. But the horse- groom forbids his new wife to reveal to anyone that by night he is a man, and says if she tells a soul she will be forced to wear iron boots and wander the land in search of him. Even if he was half horse, it was clear who wore the (likely four-legged) pants in this relationship.
After only two days, the bride lets the secret slip to her sisters. Her husband forces her to fashion her own iron boots, and then (of course!) flies off to his mother, who is an ogress. The iron-shod wife then walks for ten full years before she finding her winner of a husband. To make matters worse, the horse insists that his wife fill a vase with tears, or his mother will eat her. Sexist tropes abound: women must submit their will to their husbands, and mothers-in-law are horrible beasts who will eat you.
Puss in Boots
This is also made evident in one of the earlier tellings of “Puss In Boots.” In the Straparola and Basile telling of this story, Bacchilega says, the cat is female and her “boots are a sign of social standing (like a servant’s livery) as clothes in general are an essential class marker in this tale. The cat (this time a mother figure) uses her wits and boots to make the hero’s fortune and then expects the hero to take care of her in return. The female cat is the one with the smarts, yet her station in life must remain on par of that of her humble boots: beneath human men.