Many adult women confess to having an obsession with shoes. Similarly, an increasing number of teenage boys are passionate about athletic sneakers and accrue large collections of them, even some that are custom-made for hundreds of dollars. Adults of both genders have been known to have shoe fetishes, and to feel sexual attraction to the smell and shape of shoes themselves. The modern high heel, frequently uncomfortable and distorting for a normal foot, has long been regarded as the ultimate item of worship for designers and style icons, an artwork in its own right. I was recently at a social event at which a person who travels in the world of high fashion was a guest. I got a first hand look at her shoes which were of the Lady Gaga platform variety, that is to say, shoes which raise their wearer up on the toe box, creating the illusion that the elevated foot is floating in the air. Can we even call such a bizarre and uncomfortable object a shoe, or is it something else?
Perhaps there is something intrinsic to shoes themselves that make them fitting (!) repositories for fantasies and symbolism, both for individuals and in the culture as well. Themes from stories or myths involving shoes seem to link them with power or magic. An image of Hermes’ winged sandals automatically signifies speed, and the fairy tale of Cinderella has become synonymous with shoes themselves, and with their potential to get separated and magically reunited. The tale of the Seven League Boots is apparently a recurring trope in world literature, concerning footwear that confers powerful speed to the wearer. Dorothy’s ruby red slippers can be clicked and can teleport her home to Kansas. There are two clichés involving shoes that suggest that they embody something intrinsic to one’s situation and identity: “I would/wouldn’t want to be in his/her shoes," and, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes." Just seeing a picture of a pink toe shoe (with its design that both limits the foot and gives its wearer special power to rise above physical limitations) instantly makes us think of ballet and of stereotypic femininity, while a pirate or cowboy boot channels stereotypes of machismo. In both instances the part (the shoe) stands in for a whole universe of gender signifiers.
So what is the unconscious portal of fantasy that shoes (so practical and necessary on the one hand) tend to represent in our minds, conferring upon them such special status and symbolic potential?
I think we might look to clues early on in child development.
Around the time toddlers start to walk, they love to try on their parents’ shoes. We have all been charmed by images of very tiny children ecstatically wading around in what on them look like huge boats. At an art exhibit I attended, all goers were transfixed by the sight of a two-year-old teetering through the gallery in her mother’s high heels. She allowed herself to be photographed many times, the mere sight of her distracting those in attendance from concentrating on the art on the walls. In a sense, this toddler in high heels, at the top of her game, reminded me of the fashion diva whose strange shoes I had found simultaneously bizarre and transfixing. In wearing her mother’s shoes, this child could transform herself into a delightful caricature of a grown-up: the excitement of wearing the shoes clearly trumping their discomfort and inconvenience. She was big!
Babies rarely wear shoes and they are not an item typically found in the wardrobes of children under one. At baby showers, tiny shoes are only given as a joke. This relates of course to the obvious fact that babies cannot walk! They are carried around papoose-style or wheeled in carriages, but even if a tiny shoe can be a cute affectation, a sock will always suffice as foot covering for a baby. Upright locomotion, one of the cardinal developmental milestones of our species, will eventually require shoes. In most western cultures it is an unquestioned necessity. There is nothing that can better symbolize abject neediness or lack of socialization than an image of a clothed but barefoot child. Shoes for children are typically marketed with concrete and enticing gender markers. Little girls are frequently drawn to shoes that glitter. Such shoes represent a prized item in the clothing repertoire of many a nursery school child. Available in gold, suitable for junior royalty, or ruby red, like Dorothy’s magic slippers, these special little shoes often have to pried off their daughters’ feet by frustrated parents, even just for a trip to the playground or at least for bedtime. Similarly many boys would prefer to wear boots/galoshes whenever possible, weather conditions notwithstanding (think of Christopher Robin). Little boys’ tastes gravitate to shoes which flash or light up, or are adorned with cartoons of super-heroes.
Clearly, then, for toddlers and young children, shoes and boots readily lend themselves to representing fantasies of power, glamour and independence. Perhaps this is not so surprising, given that shoes are (except at the beach or in the backyard) the sine qua non that permits us all to leave the familiarity and safety of home, upright and on two feet, according to evolutionary mandate. We put our feet in shoes and they take us where we need to go. We wear them because we walk and the ground can hard and dirty and our feet (like ourselves) require protection.
Small children, and even dogs, know that when adults put on their shoes, they are likely to be stepping out, and, sometimes, leaving them behind. Shoes therefore inevitably get associated with separation, separateness, and leaving home. At the same time, they also seem to embody something about pairing and togetherness. Obvious as it is, shoes (like gloves) are among the only items of a wardrobe that come in pairs, to fit our two feet. Though we are very unlikely to lose a foot, many of us have had the unfortunate experience of losing or misplacing a shoe. There seems to be a melancholy attached to that eventuality, related perhaps to the possibility that a pair of shoes can be separated, because you simply cannot have one without the other. Isn’t that the core of the Cinderella story's very satisfying resolution? The shoe owner must be found so the glass slipper does not stand alone. Through the prince’s dogged search, he finds the owner of the lost shoe and Cinderella finds her match—someone as fine and upstanding as herself.
By the time children go to school, they need to have mastered the practical art of putting on their own shoes, something that may in fact be actually more difficult to accomplish than wading in mommy’s shoes or sliding one’s foot into high boots that conjure up fantasies of power and might. By first grade, most children are proud to be able to tie or buckle their own footwear and we worry about those who cannot. There is even a counting game that connects putting on shoes to going into the world: “One, two, buckle my shoe; three, four, open the door.” This is of course the developmental trajectory that every child must pass through.
So along with our practical need for them, it seems that what lends shoes their greatest psychological power is their ready association to separation and its corollary, “individuation”—i.e., the process of becoming one’s own unique person. There is something about footwear that permits it to occupy a special niche in our minds as a composite symbol for power, allure, stature, and paired-ness. In addition, shoes are a developmentally fitting symbol for the capacity to stand up, walk forward, and emerge as a separate individual, distinct from one’s parents. In order to develop an identity, a child needs to first imitate and then identify with parents' grown-up mystique, and at times their physical unavailability. So although shoes are indeed made for walking, they may also function as extensions of our identities, straddling the divide between fantasy and reality. If our inner shoe-self could speak, this is what it might say (and this would apply to toddlers all the way to Lady Gaga and her ilk):
“Look at me, I can walk tall. I can walk away and I can come back. It is up to me, but my shoes can keep each other company and keep me safe and special. We are indeed magic.”