Who can forget poor old Barbie Batchelor in The Jewel in the Crown dumping a huge suitcaseful of shoes on Clarissa Peplow’s bed after having had to leave home in a hurry. An early example of shoe addiction which is now Topic A in the popular fashion world. The once notorious collections of Imelda Marcos and Eva Peron (armadillo ankle-straps with jewelled heels) seem old hat as every girl worth her salt now accumulates her hoard of peep-toes, pumps, flats, ballets, platforms and torturing Louboutin stilettoes: “High heels are pleasure with pain” says Msr L.
So if we follow his hint, which is more of a turn-on, the shoe or the unconfined foot ? I think the average bunion’d fashionista would come down on the side of the Manolos. Both foot and covering can be highly sexualised and are perhaps the best-known of fetishistic objects: we all have access to them. Much etymic energy has been devoted to the question of whether Cinderella wore slippers of glass (verre) or fur (vair), and appropriate psychological and pathological conclusions drawn thereby. Not to mention the detail of her sisters slicing off portions of their own feet to fit the delicate slipper so admired by the Prince. But from my own observation, correct fittings do not seem to be an important aspect of the current shoe frenzy: Mrs Beckham appears to have set a trend for wearing a size or two overlarge, the old Minnie Mouse look. A recherche fetish of its own, something akin to the painful hobble and totter of the bound feet of Imperial China.
The varied symbolism of the foot is as old as man. The Mexican god Tezcatlipoca had the foot eaten by a jaguar replaced by a smoking obsidian mirror through which he dimly observes the world. Jason loses a sandal carrying the goddess Hera across a stream and, half-barefoot, fulfils King Pelias’s foretold doom. Oedipus is exposed with pierced ankles. Norse mythology tells of the Frost Giant’s daughter Skadi allowed to choose a husband from the gods but only on the evidence of their feet. Luck was not with her: the fragrant white feet she picked belonged not to Baldur the Beautiful but to the hoary and disagreeable old sea god Njord. Greek courtesans, who paid especial attention to the perfuming of their feet, stalked in studded sandals which left erotic suggestions, somewhat blurred I should think, in the Athenian dust. An idea illustrated by that long gone 20’s scent, Suivez-Moi Jeune Homme.
The removal of the shoes is the first steps towards intimacy write Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant in their classic Dictionary of Symbols. But besides denoting possession, it is paradoxically a sign of humility, subservience to man or the divine: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground”. The first rule of etiquette in the East is never to cross your legs lest you insult your companions by displaying your sole.
“And whosoever shall not receive you…when ye depart out of that house or city shake off the dust of your feet…” Matt 10:14.
The quintessence of sexy shoes,the nude shoe, the flesh-coloured shoe is back in style: first recommended by Marlene Dietrich in her ABC as flattering the length and line of the leg. She was clever with her shoe tactics. People who knew her back-stage told me two stories which I hope are true. She lined up identical shoes in the wings, a pair for each song: if she saw a smut on her beaded champagne slippers as she bowed, she could slip into the next pair under cover of the applause. And a dressing-room habitue remembered that if Marlene became aware of a prying scrutiny of her face she would advise her guest “look out for the shoes! Mind where you’re walking, the floor is covered with my shoes…”
Like a glove the shoe sexualises and transforms a socially acceptable part of the body by veiling and concealing and thus simultaneously calling attention to it. Think of Rita Hayworth’s single glove striptease in Gilda and those Toulouse Lautrec posters of Yvette Guilbert who made long black gloves an integral part of her diseuse act. David Lean uses continual and remarkable shoe (and clothing) imagery throughout his film Madeleine to demonstrate his heroine’s ambiguous morality as a seductress and probable poisoner in 1850’s Glasgow. Awaiting the jury’s decision in her cell, Madeleine slips on a pair of new black shoes, and the camera lingers on her feet as it has at key moments of the movie. Her concealment (maybe even from herself) is complete + the verdict naturally is “Not Proven”.
So what of the scent of the shoe? Apparently the foetid smell of those grotesque trotter-like slippers which encased the Chinese lily-foot was part of their peculiar appeal. But we’re not going down that particular trail – for now. I’m thinking more in terms of a shoe of kid suede so fine it would double for a glove; new and exciting from the boutique in a great rustle of tissue papers and varnished card box, all with stimulating electric scents of their own. A shoe just gently warmed by an exquisitely painted, moistured, powdered and pedicured foot: the warm muskiness of skin and flesh mixing with the peardrop bittersweet of nail polish, animalic soft leather, brushed black suede,a metallic tang of tiny gilt buckle and the dark smooth night of the sole. If this appeals, go smell Gantier’s Cuir Fetiche: it has it all, and more…