finding her feet


women’s shoes and their stories


Shoes mediate between the body and place, between the self and other… 

Ann Brydon, 1998, ‘Sensible Shoes’, in Consuming fashion: adorning the transnational body. Berg

shoe stories

MORE THAN ANY OTHER ITEM OF CLOTHING, shoes put us in regular and direct contact with the world that exists beyond our own bodies. They are often associated with physical or metaphorical journeys, and with the boundaries which we cross in the course of those journeys. Changes in footwear come into play at the point where we are about to step over important dividing-lines, and enter a different world – passing, for example, from childhood to adulthood, from indoors to outdoors, or from a secular to a sacred space. The stories which we tell about our shoes are almost inevitably stories about ourselves, the experiences we have had, and the paths we have chosen.


During lockdown in the summer of 2020 I wore these grey Puma trainers every day when  venturing out of the house for  my ‘permitted exercise’. The following summer I bought several new pairs of trainers, and I’ve never worn the Pumas since, though I used to be fond of them. But I haven’t thrown them away. The memories of that time are nearly all bad, but those grey Pumas  remind me how much things have improved since I was wearing them every day. I didn’t think I would ever live a normal life again, but I was wrong.

But lockdown had its compensations, and one of them was getting to know Mayfair, which I’d scarcely set foot in before. Although it is near where I live, I used to think it was full of posh people, and that I was either too good for it, or not good enough.  A bit of both probably. Now I think differently. 

During the first Coronavirus lockdown, Bond Street was nearly empty. The displays in the shop windows didn’t change for four months, and I passed these brogues designed for Church’s by Kei Ninomiya several times a week. They cost about £800, and I almost persuaded myself that I needed them in order to survive. Looking at them now I’m sorry I didn’t succumb to temptation.

barefoot in the city

At one time in the UK bare feet were equated with poverty. My mother, born in Manchester in 1915, used to tell me stories about children of her age who couldn’t go to school because it wasn’t their turn to wear the shoes. Nowadays we certainly haven’t abolished poverty, but in the UK it is much less likely to be associated with bare feet. This is largely because plastic shoes were invented in the 1940s, and canvas shoes are now widely worn as well. The urge to throw off convention and constraint is a more common motive for casting off our shoes, though it is still rare on city streets. Bare feet are generally confined to parks, meadows and beaches.


glass slippers and invisible sandals

The best-known fairy tale involving shoes is, of course, Cinderella. 345 variants of this story were identified by the British anthropologist Marian Roalfe Cox in 1893. In these Cinderella has many different names: the key element uniting all of the stories is the identification of the heroine by means of a shoe. The version which is most familiar today is the one published by the French writer Charles Perrault in 1697,  ‘Cendrillon, ou la Petite Pantoufle de Verre’ – ‘Cendrillon, or the little glass slipper.’ As far as we know, it was Perrault who introduced glass as the material from which the vital slipper was made.

Cinderella is the fairy-tale that has everything: a wicked stepmother, sibling rivalry, rags to riches… Here, I want to concentrate on just  three aspects of the story:

Shoes as a signifier of identity

Why glass? 


shoes as a signifier of identity

Les Contes de Perrault, an edition of Charles Perrault’s fairy tales illustrated by Gustave Doré, originally published in 1862

Sometimes a shoe serves to identify a specific individual: like fingerprints or DNA it answers the question, ‘Who was here?’. In the Perrault version of the Cinderella story, when the heroine flees the ball on the stroke of midnight she loses one of her glass slippers. The Prince has fallen in love with his anonymous dance partner, and sends a steward to visit every house in the country, trying to find the young woman whose foot the slipper will fit. By this time Cinderella has resumed her position as household drudge and is wearing her old worn out clothes. In these she is unrecognisable. But as soon as her foot slides snugly into the shoe, everyone knows who she is: the unknown beauty whom the Prince danced with the night before.



One of the oldest versions of ‘Cinderella’ is the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave-girl in the Egyptian sea-port of Naucratis, recorded by the Greek historian Strabo in the early years of the 2nd century CE. One day Rhodopis (‘Rosy-cheeked’) was bathing in a pool when an eagle swooped down, snatched one of her sandals, and flew away with it in his beak. He flew all the way to Memphis, the capital of Egypt, and dropped it into the lap of the Pharoaoh, who at the time was presiding over an open-air courtroom. This is an amazing event, thought the Pharaoh. Entranced by the beautiful shape of the sandal, he sent heralds to every corner of the country looking for the woman who had worn it. When she was at last identified, the Pharaoh brought Rhodopis to Memphis and married her (Geographica 17.1.33).

I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes

It’ll be difficult to fill her shoes

Stepping into dead man’s shoes

In these expressions the shoe isn’t offering a clue to someone’s identity, but it is standing in for a specific person – his or her shoes represent the whole person

A suspect’s footwear. Zalman 992

Nowadays shoes CAN be used to help answer the question, ‘Who was here?’. Forensic footwear evidence is presented in legal proceedings to show that a particular shoe was at a crime scene. Footwear evidence is sometimes the most abundant kind of evidence there is, and it can often be as specific as a fingerprint. The aim is to identify the make and model of the shoe which left a footprint or a mark on a floor. 

But more often than not shoes are expressive of group or social identity. When we’re wearing them, we may be advertising (wittingly or unwittingly) our class, gender, wealth, or social aspirations. When they appear in works of art or in memorials, they often signify a group of people as a whole. In this sculpture by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos (2009) the giant shoes – and their title ‘Marilyn’ – are making a statement about the construction of women’s identity in modern society.

From a distance the shoes look like large glittering stilettos. But as you get closer, you realise that they’re composed of pots, pans, and pan-lids. Women are expected to be sexy, but underneath it all they should be good around the house as well. That’s what these shoes are saying to me.

Meret Oppenheimer, Ma gouvernante or My Nurse, 1936/67. Dahlstrom/Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo, Albil Dahlstrom. 


A similar construction of female identity can be detected in ‘My Nurse’, by the German/Swiss surrealist sculptor Meret Oppenheimer. The piece may have been inspired by the artist’s own nursemaid.  The woman, whoever she was, is represented by her white high heels, and is served up on a platter like a roast chicken. Perhaps, like Vasconcelos’ ‘Marilyn’, she is tied into her role as a female companion who is both sexy and good at cooking. Perhaps she is being offered to us as a dish concocted for our consumption.

Conversely, an absence of footwear can signify a stripping away of identity. Traditionally, slaves in Brazil were not allowed to wear shoes: their bare feet distinguished them from free Brazilians, and marked them out as non-people with no freedom of movement. Slavery lasted in Brazil till 1888, longer than in any other country in the Americas.

Slaves in a coffee yard, Paraíba Valley, Brazil, c.1882. Marc Ferrez



To be continued