‘How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter!’¤
Lemon Wedge can’t help noticing what a powerful visual role a person’s footwear plays in political and social characterisation. Mrs May’s kitten heels, Gandhi’s sandals, Fascist jackboots, Eva Peron’s armadillo court shoes, Harold Wilson’s Hush Puppies. Barefoot, we are all brought down to earth. Once shod, we step into character, and step out with assurance. There are captains of finance and industry who cut visitors down to size by demanding that they remove their shoes before entering penthouse offices. Remember Mad Men and the boss’s precious corporate carpet? And there’s a scene in ‘Old Acquaintance’ (1943) which a downright literary Bette Davis plays barefoot, and wearing a pyjama jacket. This seems brave for the era, even faintly shocking. Many an actor has claimed that finding the right shoe is vital for the definition of a role. As Louise Brooks once explained in that wonderful high swooping voice:
“Out of the character comes the movement; and out of the movement comes the dialogue…”
Did you happen to see all that fuss about Kellyanne Conway kneeling on a White House sofa without first kicking off her shoes ? I was fascinated by the vociferous volume of the Press reaction. I have always been repelled by the way that, in modern movies and soap operas, men and women throw themselves on couches and beds while still wearing their street shoes¤¤. You take a look at them clicking about in “East Enders”, bringing indoors all the muck and stink of London. No one says a thing. But poor old Kellyanne in the Oval Office really got it in the neck.
Why won’t folk automatically slip off their footwear when they come indoors in an expression of hygiene and courtesy? Some people no doubt resent losing height, poise and posture – but I suspect that the real reluctance is due to a worry that the feet may smell. This not only risks causing offence but also reveals the visitor’s true animal nature in a very uncompromising way. (Think of Red Riding Hood and that Wolf in the bed – “All the better to smell you with, my dear”). I wonder if the old Norse myth about the disastrous marriage of mountain goddess Skaoi and the hoary weird sea god Njoror references this fear. Skaoi had to choose her husband by his feet alone. She saw and smelled such a dazzling pair of flower-feet beneath a curtain that she could imagine them belonging only to Baldur the Beautiful, Master of the Sun.
But she got it so wrong.
We treat our feet cruelly. For three score years and ten we swaddle them in socks and tights. We jam them like hermit crabs into those curiously wrought shells and cases which we call shoes. I notice increasingly numbers of men tottering along Oxford Street as though their business shoes are far too tight. We teeter and balance our considerable height and weight upon our poor trotters for a lifetime. No wonder feet complain and weep tears of sweat.
You should pardon the expression if I mention the egregiously esoteric appeal of the bound lily feet of old China. Evidently it was not only the tiny size that had man-appeal. It was the odour of deformed bone-crushed feet that had been trussed up in bandages throughout the years of growth.
I was always told never to wear the same pair of shoes two days running; and to change them during the day. Keep a spare pair in the workplace for after lunch when the feet begin to swell. I remember the foot-baths at school; wouldn’t it be lovely to have them – or a foot spa – at the shop? It is a heavenly feeling to soak your feet – far more refreshing than dabbling your hands; more like bathing your face.
Right up until 1688 the Kings of England washed the feet of the deserving poor on Maundy Thursday. William III briskly abolished this custom and to date it has not been revived. There is much mention of the washing of feet in the Christian Gospels: it was a hospitable ritual offered to honoured guests and it became a metaphor for Christ’s Ministry: “The Master of All is the Servant of All”. This was a subject I remember very well being told off to draw at school and at Sunday classes. For example, at the supper at Bethany at the house of SS. Martha and Mary:
“Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of spikenard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment……..Jesus therefore said, Suffer her to keep it against the day of my burying…”¤¤¤
Smells and perfumes: omnipotent, beautiful – but sometimes ominous.
¤ The Song of Solomon 7:1
¤¤ things were different in the old days. Remember Margaret Diamond taking off her pumps and placing them on the coffee table in ‘Victim’ (196I)? Then, of course, shoe removal on-screen often indicated some sort of covert sexual activity.
¤¤¤ S.John 12:3,7.