Thursday, 1 September 2016

Slippers of Glass, Slippers of Fur - on Cinderella's shoes

There are extraordinary numbers of superstitions about shoes - though most are now unfamiliar to us 21st century mortals.  According to Iona Opie and Moira Tatem’s ‘Dictionary of Superstitions’, an old shoe hung up at the fireside was thought to bring luck. You turned your shoes upside down to prevent nightmares or to stop a dog from howling; it was unlucky to put your right shoe on before your left; burning a pair of old shoes could prevent children from being stolen by the fairies; bad luck was bound to follow if a pair of new shoes was placed upon a table -- and so on and on. In fact, shoes have often been often hidden within the fabric of buildings, possibly as apotropaic charms to ward off evil.

Here's a photo of a whole collection of such shoes from East Anglia, courtesy of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service. Northampton Museum keeps a ‘Concealed Shoe Index’; in a pamplet written for the museum J.M. Swann describes some of the finds, dating from the early 15th century into the 20th:  

The shoes are usually found not in the foundations but in the walls, over door lintels, in rubble floors, behind wainscoting, under staircases…  shoes occur singly or with others, very rarely in pairs, occasionally in ‘families’ – a man’s, woman’s, and a range of sizes of children’s. Sometimes they are found with other objects – a candlestick, wooden bowl or pot, wine glass, spoon, knife, sheath, purse, glove, pipe… The condition of the shoes, like the objects found with them, is usually very poor: worn out, patched, repaired.

My mother preserved some tiny silver shoes which were used to decorate her wedding cake. Old shoes used to be thrown after the departing bride and groom for luck and I can remember at least once seeing old boots tied to the bumper of the honeymoon couple's car. Maybe this still happens?  It's a practice which goes back centuries. Opie and Tatem quote John Heywood in 1546: ‘For good lucke, cast an olde shoe after mee’ and Ben Jonson in 1621: ‘Hurle after an olde shooe, I’le be merry what e’er I doe.’  Francis Kilvert writes in his diary for January 1, 1873:

The bride went straightway to her carriage. Someone thrust an old white pair of satin shoes into my hand with which I made an ineffectual shot at the post-boy, and someone else behind me missed the carriage altogether and gave me with an old shoe a terrific blow on the back of the head…

Shoes are very personal items. They literally mould themselves to the shape of an individual’s foot. Anyone who’s sorted through the clothes of someone who’s died will know how the sight of a pair of their empty shoes is especially poignant. It’s as if well-worn shoes have almost become part of the person. Perhaps that’s why, as the folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould writes in his 1913 ‘Book of Folk-Lore’ :

…when we say that a man has stepped into his father’s shoes, we mean that the authority, position and consequence of the parent has been transferred to his son.

Now to Cinderella. Numerous variants of the Cinderella story (tale type ATU 510A) include the motif of the heroine’s shoe which is dropped or lost and, when restored and matched to her foot, proves her identity and worth.  In Basile’s ‘La Gatta Cenerentola’ or ‘The Hearth-Cat’ (1634) the heroine Zezolla drops a fashionable ‘stilted shoe’ or ‘chopine’ as she escapes from the festa: when she appears at a banquet which the King has ordered for all the ladies in the land, it darts to her foot like iron to a magnet.  Chopines were the platform shoe to end all platform shoes – more like towers than platforms, as you can see below – and must have been extremely difficult to walk in: no wonder Zezolla lost one.  (They're almost incredible, but apparently some were as tall as twenty inches high and you can find out more about them here.)

16th century style Venetian chopine

Perrault’s Cinderella has slippers made of glass, such an improbable material for shoes that some have argued it must be a mistake, a confusion between ‘vair’ (parti-coloured fur) and ‘verre’ (glass).  But really, when has improbability ever troubled a fairy tale?  Aschenputtel’s shoes are golden, Scottish Rashin Coatie’s slippers are made of satin, and in one of my favourite versions, the Irish tale ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’, the heroine Trembling gets the jazziest shoes of all. She asks a henwife (a magical figure in Irish tales) for clothes fit to go to church in. On the first day the henwife obliges with a dress as white as snow and green shoes, on the second she provides a dress of black satin and red shoes, and on the third day Trembling demands: 

“A dress red as a rose from the waist down, and white as snow from the waist up; a cape of green on my shoulders, and a hat on my head with a red, a white and a green feather in it, and shoes for my feet with the toes red, the middle white and the backs and heels green.”

Flamboyant in these fairy colours, riding on a white mare with ‘blue and gold-coloured diamond-shaped spots’ all over its body, Trembling cannot enter the church and has to listen to mass from outside the door, but the king’s son sees her and falls in love.  Racing beside Trembling’s horse as she rides away, he pulls a shoe from her foot and searches all Ireland for the fair lady.  

In a story from China dating to 850/860 AD, the heroine Yeh Xien loses and has restored to her a gold shoe ‘as light as down’, and in what may be the oldest recorded variant of the tale – from the early first century AD – there is still a shoe, or at least a sandal.  It comes in part of an account of the Pyramids by the Roman historian, geographer and traveller Strabo. After describing the Pyramids, he explains that one of them: 

… is said to be the tomb of a courtesan, built by her lovers, and whose name, according to Sappho the poetess, was Doriche. She was the mistress of her brother Charaxus, who traded to the port of Naucratis with wine of Lesbos. Others call her Rhodopis.

A story is told of her, that, when she was bathing, an eagle snatched one of her sandals from the hands of her female attendant and carried it to Memphis; the eagle soaring over the head of the king, who was administering justice at the time, let the sandal fall into his lap. The king, struck with the shape of the sandal, and the singularity of the accident, sent over the country to discover the woman to whom it belonged. She was found in the city of Naucratis, and brought to the king, who made her his wife. At her death she was honoured with the above-mentioned tomb.

Needless to say, this isn't true... It may be argued that this story doesn’t fit the Cinderella tale type because Rhodopis isn't downtrodden and neglected, but while downtrodden and neglected heroes and heroines are two a penny, the shoe motif seems to me the distinguishing feature of the Cinderella story. And on this evidence, the tale has been around for at least 2000 years. In some versions – as in Basile’s – the shoe literally leaps to the true owner's foot: ‘[Rashin Coatie] ran away to the grey stone, where the red calf dressed her in her bravest dress, and she went to the prince, and the slipper jumped out of his pocket on to her foot, fitting her without any chipping or paring. So the prince married her that very day…’

And well he might: the fitting of the shoe may actually have been part of the ceremony.  The folklorist Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in 1913:

In some French provinces, when the bride is about to go to church, all her old shoes have been hidden away. In Roussillon it is always the nearest relative to the bridegroom who puts on her shoes, and these are new. The meaning comes out clearer in Berry, where all the assistants try to put the bride’s shoes on, but fail, and it is only the bridegroom who succeeds. It was also a custom in Germany for the old shoes to be left behind and the new shoes given by the bridegroom to be assumed. 

What did it mean?  Perhaps many things. If it was traditional for the bridegroom to place new shoes on the bride’s feet, it’s possible he was asserting authority over her, especially since Baring-Gould goes on to add that ‘A harsher way … was for him to tread hard on the bride’s foot, to show that he would be master.’  (There are times when one feels that folk-customs aren’t so charming after all. Hum.) Baring-Gould says,  ‘When in the Psalm [Psalm 60] the expression occurs, ‘Over Edom have I cast out My shoe’, the meaning is that Jehovah extended His authority over Edom.’ So a shoe could be a symbol of dominance, of trampling on someone. But in ‘The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren’ Iona and Peter Opie write, ‘When anyone receives a pair of new shoes the custom is to stand on her toes for luck.’  As with most of human nature and culture, it’s all in the interpretation.

The young man kneeling in front of his bride, touching her ankles as he slides new shoes on to her feet – you don’t have to be a died-in-the-wool Freudian to see something sexy about that, and I bet quite a few young couples enjoyed the frisson of – finally! – permitted, public, personal contact.  But I think there’s more to it.  A very long and complicated Irish tale ‘The King Who Had Twelve Sons’ contains the Cinderella ‘lost shoe’ motif, but the roles are reversed and it’s the princess who tugs the hero’s boot off as he rides past.  Taking on what we tend to think of as the male role in this story type, she proclaims ‘a gathering of all the men in the three islands that she might see who the man was whom the shoe fitted’.  In this case too, as soon as the hero arrives, ‘The shoe was in her hand, and it leaped from her hand till it went on his foot. "You are the man that was on the pony the day that he killed the piast," the princess proclaims, "and you are the man whom I will marry."’  

Given the very personal nature of shoes – people rarely lend them – and the number of superstitions about them, it seems to me that the shoe in the Cinderella stories is more than something to walk about in. First of all, it’s a status symbol: in all of the stories the shoe is of high quality and made of rare materials. This, in a time when many people had no shoes at all. But it seems to me that it belongs to the heroine in almost the same way as her hair or fingernails do: it fits no other foot, no other person can wear it. The Cinder-girl is identified and revealed through the medium of the glass or fur or brocade slipper because her shoes are a magical representation of her true self. 

What chopines said about Zozolla though -- I don't know!

Picture credits:

Cinderella: Watercolour by Edward Burne-Jones, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Wikimedia Commons 

Concealed shoes, St Edmondsbury: Wikimedia Commons

Miniature silver shoes, author's possession.

Reconstruction of a (moderately high) Venetian chopine in the Shoe Museum, Lausanne: Wikimedia Commons

Rashin-Coatie and the Red Calf, by John D. Batten

Cinderella, by Warwick Goble


  1. Just to add, from tomorrow I'm off on holiday for a week so won't be able to reply to comments for a while - but I'll look forward hearing from you all and will certainly reply once I'm back.

  2. Speaking of shoes being hidden away: The Folklore podcast recently had an episode about objects being hidden the fabric of old buildings for unknown reasons. It contains an insightful interview with archeologist who has specialized in that subject:

    The sexual undertones of shoes alsobecome apparent in a German Wedding costume, I've witnesseda few times. While it is common in a few countries that the bride throws her shoe to the unmarried women, because it is believed that the one that ctches it will be married next, the variant I found interesting is more sexual in nature. Later in the evening, often after the Wedding cake, the bride and bridegroom enter the dancefloor, where the husband will kneel down and take off the bride's shoe and then her garter (which usually evokes laughter as he struggles with the poofy wedding dress). I've seen one instance where the bride took off her own shoe and the bridegroom only tookoff her garter after she had thrown it. Then the bride throws her shoe to the unmarried women who have gathered on the dance floor. After that the husband will throw the garter to the unmarried men.

    I assume this custom must be quite modern, but still from a time where garters were commonplace (Often the bride will sneak off to the bathroom to take off her pantyhose and put on the garter immediatly before, also so it won't be sweaty).

    I wonder how the bridegroom putting on the shoes turned into him taking it off and if there's more than drunken hijinx behind this tradition.

  3. I believe that the Biblical use of shoes is when you are handing over property or rights to someone else. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz, who wants to marry Ruth, tells her that there is a kinsman closer-related to her late husband than him and he will need to ask him to relinquish his rights. Land is involved somewhere. Anyway, he goes into town(Bethlehem), meets the other man, only ever referred to as "so and so" and tells him he has to marry Ruth and have the property that comes with her. "So and so" says, "Well, I can't do that, it will stuff up my own inheritance" (haven't a clue why, a rabbi could probably explain it better). "Ah," says Boaz casually, "then you won't mind if I do?" and on being told to go ahead, he requires the man hands him one of his shoes as evidence of relinquishing his claim. This he does and the happy couple get married... I think the business with the shoe is still around, as is the requirement to either marry your late relative's widow or hand over your shoe.

    1. Yes, that's right. Stepping into someone's sandals gives the right to walk on the property so to speak. I suppose then that traditions where the bride leaves her shoes behind or where she puts on new shoes symbolises a transferal from walking about her papa's home to her husband's.

      Deuteronomy 11:24 Every place whereon the sole of your foot shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness, and Lebanon, from the river, the river Perath, even to the hinder sea shall be your border.

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  4. Fascinating - I didn't know about any of these variants. Those chopines though - horrendous!

  5. Yes, I have been to weddings in the USA where the bride throws her bouquet to the unmarried women (as in the UK) and then the groom throws the bride's garter to the unmarried men. Cue much hilarity.

    The family weddings I have attended in the USA also feature a tradition which although it must be quite recent even they cannot date: the young men sit on the floor in a line (as though in a canoe) and paddle furiously to the Hawaii 50 theme. And the young men also lie on the floor on their tummies and make like a surf board while their chosen partner balances on their back "surfing". The family has no connection with Hawaii or, so far as I can tell, California, so no surfing heritage at all. But they seem to make this an important part of all their weddings.

    Almost all TV/film weddings seem to feature old shoes and tin cans (why tin cans?) fixed to the back of the bridal car. French, Grerman, UK.....

  6. Re the taking off the garter... In my book, A Sterkarm Kiss, I describe a 16th century wedding and I researched these customs. The bride's garters are taken off by the groom's male friends.

    I have the bride and groom put to bed by the company. The girls undress the bride and play a game where they sit on the end of the bed, facing away from the bride and throw her balled up stocking behind them. The object of the game is to land a stocking on the bride's head. The girl who succeeds will be the next to marry.

    These customs date back at least to the 17th century.

    And, yes, boots are still tied to the back of wedding cars! Saw this done just a few years ago.