No More Red Shoes

Pope Benedict XVI

At turbulent times like this, it’s nice to know that some people are focusing on the important things.

People like me.

On things like shoes.

Which is why we must take a moment to recognise the fact that there will be no more red shoes for His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI when he abdicates tomorrow. Let the wailing begin because this means it is over, people.

Red shoes have always been associated with power, both in their redness and their “shoeyness.” Throughout most of history, shoes have been very expensive, as has the dye for the colour red. Red itself is associated with aristocracy and wealth, which is why kings and popes are always garbed in the stuff.

Add even a slight heel to your shoe, and you’re declaring that you don’t work in the fields and are rich enough to be totally impractical about your shoes. You are one of the well-heeled, thankyouforverymuch.

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Hyacinthe Rigaud, Portrait of King Louis XIV (detail), 1701 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

In Ancient Roman times, only aristocratic patricians could wear red shoes. When the empire fell in the West, the Church prelates took over this distinguishing marker of nobility and power.

But the symbolism continued.

During the reign of Louis XIV in the 17th Century, red-heeled shoes were reserved for aristocratic men and were a mark of royal favour. 

It also during since time that we have Charles Perrault’s popular stories of Cinderella and Puss in Boots, both with shoes that transform their lowly station and make them rich, noble and happy. Sure they weren’t red shoes but they show how intimate the connection between power and footwear was.

In the 19th Century, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale called ‘The Red Shoes’ about a young woman who becomes enamored of her red shoes (fit for a princess!) that she neglects God and her family to dance in them. Once she has started though, she can’t stop… even when she begs an executioner to cut off her feet. He does but nothing helps. Eventually, she repents, dies and leaves the red shoes behind. The moral of the story? Red shoes are powerful things, and unless you’re careful, they will destroy you. 

most-expensive-shoes-the-wizard-of-ozThen of course, we have Dorothy and her own powerful red shoes. She uses them for good but their power is in no doubt.

So for good or ill, red shoes = power.

And the papacy is part of this tradition. Red shoes, also known as the papal slippers, have been part of the pontifical vestments for donkeys years, possibly as far back as the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Some thought they would disappear like so much other historical papal and cleric dress. (Things like, and I kid you not, the episcopal sandals. And you thought the Church was out of touch with the modern world!) But happy days! Benedict brought them back with a vengeance.

And who wouldn’t love that?

(The Wicked Witch of the West, that’s who, but that’s another story.)

In fact, so snazzy is the Holy Father’s footwear that he was dubbed the Prada Pope, from rumours that those red shoes were, gasp, Prada. (They weren’t. Why would the pope wear what the devil wears??)

But the shoes didn’t need to be Prada to be impressive. They were red and with two thousand years of history, folklore and absolutism behind them, they were some seriously splendid accessories.

But now, he is giving up the shoes. Apparently Rome isn’t big enough for two red loafer-toting pontiffs. 

We’ll miss you Your Sole-iness!

Pope Benedict XVI leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, May 19, 2010. (ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/REUTERS)

Pope Benedict XVI leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, May 19, 2010. (ALESSANDRO BIANCHI/REUTERS)

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8 responses to “No More Red Shoes

  1. Point of interest: Dorothy actually had SILVER shoes in The Wizard of Oz book… Red was an innovation by Hollywood… I think to take advantage of the wonders of Technicolor.

    • They could well do but my guess is that that symbolism developed after the fact. The popes wore red shoes because that’s what important did, and then the symbolism comes on the scene. What do you reckon?

      • Well, I’m not a student of history, so I can’t say what came first and so on 😛 However, though red as a symbol of nobility and power does not contradict red as a symbol for blood, I’d wager that the latter holds higher importance.

        • Of course! Red can mean all sorts of things and since blood is our “life blood” and infinitely associated with power, ie killing and battle, that’s not surprising. Add in Jesus in a red-blood robe in Rev. When it comes to the pope, red as blood of the martyrs makes sense, after all that’s our power. 😉

  2. Pingback: Seeking Mass-loving, Martian-speaking Pontiff | CATHOLIC CRAVINGS·

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