In 1939, Dorothy tapped her ruby slippers three times while saying “there’s no place like home.” Since then, multiple generations of women have grown up knowing the unmistakable power of a red shoe.
But beyond The Wizard of Oz, something about a woman who wears red shoes automatically sends a message of power and independence to the world. Historically, red shoes have been the exclusive domain of bold individuals in positions of power: In 1701, King Louis XIV, who also went by the humble moniker “the Sun King,” posed for a royal portrait wearing red heeled shoes. At the time, red dye was very expensive and very difficult to come by, so you pretty much had to be an actual king to afford it. Or at least a Pope, who traditionally wore red leather loafers since at least 1484, until Pope Francis gave them up for comfortable, brown orthopedic shoes. Okay, I guess red shoes have technically been a symbol for men in positions of power, so you can probably figure out what happens when a woman tries to claim a traditionally male power symbol — women with a penchant for scarlet shoes are often seen as unsavory characters.
In The Red Shoes, the famous fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, a poor, orphaned girl named Karen is adopted by a rich woman upon her mother’s death. The woman gives her a pair of red shoes as a present, and Karen becomes obsessed with them, wanting to wear them everywhere — even to church, where they’re considered inappropriate. One day, Karen starts dancing and the shoes take over her feet. She cannot take them off or stop dancing. At the end of her wits, she asks to have her feet amputated, but this does nothing. Her severed feet follow her around, still merrily dancing inside the red shoes, taunting her. She gives up her life of riches, starts working as a maid, and begs God to forgive her for her vanity. Simply put: She’s a woman punished for veering from the paths and behaviors she is meant to ascribe to.
Perhaps their most recent associations with the unsavory stem from The Red Shoe Diaries, the scandalous late-night erotic drama that aired on Showtime. Starring David Duchovny as a man who places an ad in the paper looking for women to submit their stories of passion and seduction after breaking off his engagement after his fiancée begins an affair with a man who has sold her a pair of red shoes. Here, red shoes are a stand-in for the liberation of women’s desires.
We associate the color red with passion, with blood; it’s impulsive, explosive, bold, so it’s no surprise that the color figured so prominently on so many fall runways. Designers know we dress as a reaction to the outside world, and with the increasing instability of the political and economic spectrum, it’s obvious that we would approach getting dressed in the morning as if we were putting on armor. Red, white, and blue stands for America, but red stands for resistance.
Now, wearing red shoes — especially red boots — is the sartorial equivalent of shouting I am woman, hear me roar. While full-on red looks like the ones shown at Givenchy, Giambattista Valli, or Oscar de la Renta might not be the most practical for every-day wear, we can definitely benefit from a jolt of energy that only a pair of fire-engine red lace-up boots can provide.
When it seems like the world is set on keeping you down, when you wake up to another protest, to another photograph of a group of white men making irreversible healthcare decisions for women and their bodies, do not despair. We’ll get through another day if we come together, if we push through, if we follow our own personal yellow brick road back to a place we know feels like home.