The symbolism of shoes in the movies

From cinema's earliest years, shoes have been often used symbolically. Aliya chooses a few of her favourite footwear moments...

How often do you look at someone’s shoes? Most of us don’t go out of our way to stare at other people’s choices of footwear, so when a movie does a close-up of those loafers, wellies, slippers or Cuban heels, there has to be a really good reason for it.

Here are a few examples of times when the director has used shoes for movie shorthand, and what exactly we’re being told…

Going places

Nothing makes a character look more awesome than a great pair of shoes. Take the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever (1977). John Travolta’s walking down the street to the sound of the Bee Gees, paint can in hand, and he stops at a shoe shop to check his cool shoes against the other cool shoes in the window. He is on the cutting edge of fashion, and we know he’s going to take us along for the ride. We instantly recognise him – he’s just like us. With better hair. It’s a perfect movie beginning.

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Having an idiosyncratic taste in footwear can highlight your chutzpah and also provide an easy form of identification once you’re dead, which is handy. Take Up Close And Personal (1996) – journalist Warren Justice (Robert Redford) has a particular set of boots with distinctive red laces for going on dangerous assignments, which makes it possible for his wife Tally Atwater (Michelle Pfeiffer) to identify his corpse via satellite link-up. He was a go-getter, but now he’s just a pair of red laces in the dust.

More Robert Redford, this time in The Way We Were (1973). College is ending, and young students Hubble (Redford) and Katie (Barbra Streisand) are going their separate ways. She is envious of his good looks and natural talent, and he admires her political nous and will to succeed. They share a quiet moment at a bar. He notices her loose shoelace, and ties it for her, then says, “Go get ‘em Katie.” He wants her to go out and excel in the world. It’s a great observational character moment, which director Sydney Pollack always did so well.

There are lots of very different examples of the dynamism of a man in interesting shoes. Whenever Tony Stark is getting ready to become Iron Man (2008) we see his feet being incorporated into the boots of his armoured suit. Or our first introduction to the Spleen in Mystery Men (1999) is a shot of his amazing platforms as he moves through the diner to greet the other superheroes. Better yet, you can design your own interesting shoes – in Jumanji (1995) there’s a sub-plot involving Carl Bentley (David Alan Grier) who works in a shoe factory. He’s developed a prototype sneaker that shows his dynamic entrepreneurial skills. Unfortunately it gets destroyed and Carl gets sacked; it’s one more element of the past that Robin Williams has to put right by finishing the board game.

Sometimes you can be so adventurous that your shoes fall off or wear out along the way. In the classic adventure Jason And The Argonauts (1963) King Pelias is told to beware a man wearing one sandal. What he couldn’t foresee was that Jason (Todd Armstrong) would save Pelias from drowning and lose his sandal in the process. Jason is a genuine hero –  the Gods’ instrument of salvation, and also of doom.

But my favourite worn-out movie shoes belong to Mr Magorium, played so likably by Dustin Hoffman in the life-affirming Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007). He’s about to wear out the final set of his favourite shoes, so he tells his assistant, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman) that it’s time for him to die. Which he does, without fuss. Once you’ve run out of your footwear of choice, what’s the point? The shoes represent the journey; once the shoes have holes, the journey is over. But it was super-stylish while it lasted.

Changing roles

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Nothing says a character is in flux so much as a new pair of shoes. Let’s start with some red ones.

Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) knows she’s made it when she’s given the lead role in the ballet. But the shoes that initially symbolise joy and success become a burden that she can never escape. There’s no film quite as beautiful and allegorical as Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). And there are the ruby slippers that Dorothy magically receives from the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East in The Wizard Of Oz (1939). When she puts them on she’s ready to begin her transformation into a strong woman, upsetting the balance of power in Oz.

There are some great semiotic studies on the importance of the ruby slippers in popular culture, and they continue to fascinate us today. Out of the four pairs used in the movie, one pair can be seen on permanent display in the Smithsonian Institute; another pair was apparently given to Lady Gaga by her management recently. That’s one expensive and culturally significant present.

Ruby slippers and glass slippers have a lot in common. Cinderella is transformed into a princess by a wave of a magic wand and the appearance of fancy footwear. This Charles Perrault fairy tale is so popular that it is, according to the Guinness Book Of Records, the most remade movie in cinema history. If you want to watch it, you have over 90 different versions to choose from. Personally, I like the soft focus and good heart of The Slipper And The Rose (1967), as well as the twinkling appeal of the 1950 Disney version.

Shoes are often used to herald a transformation from ugly to beautiful for female characters; the make-over shot often starts with the toes and works up. The first time we meet distraught spinster Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in the ultimate weepie Now, Voyager (1942), she is shown only as a pair of clumpy lace-ups coming down the stairs. But after psychiatrist Claude Rains has given her self-confidence we meet her again. This time the camera starts with her brand new fashionable high heels, to make it clear that he’s done a marvellous job on her. Similar transformations occur in lots of movies, including Grease (1978), She’s All That (1999) and Love Potion Number 9 (1992).

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It’s interesting that when men undergo physical transformations in the movies, the focus is rarely on the shoes. Usually we get shown their hands first (see any version of Doctor Jekyll And Mister Hyde). Maybe it’s the difference between an objective point of view and a subjective one – hands are personal, whereas shoes mean we don’t identify so strongly with the character, but view the transformation from a distance.

This transformation can be more subtle. In Romancing The Stone (1984) romantic novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) has a steep learning curve in front of her. She has to fly to Columbia to save her kidnapped sister, and gets lost in the jungle with soldier-of-fortune Jack T Colton (Michael Douglas) as her unlikely rescuer. He has no patience with her smart city shoes so he chops off the heels with his machete. Two hacks later, and they are practical slip-ons instead. The shoe-chopping tells us there’s no messing around. Joan’s going to have to adapt to this jungle or die. It’s a good thing she’s a quick learner with intense sexual chemistry to keep Jack interested.

Strength of character

For women, how you choose to wear your high heels says a lot about you.

The battle for Bella Swan’s soul comes to a head with her wedding to Edward Cullen in Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part One (2011), but it’s symbolised in an unsubtle way by an issue with footwear. Her wedding shoes are beautiful, towering high heels, but Bella never feels comfortable in them. In the end she asserts her personality and wears trainers instead. After all, it’s her personal choice to marry into the undead.

Feisty Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) makes a different choice in Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981). She accepts bad guy Belloq’s offer of a pretty dress and some white peep-toed high heels in the hope of seducing him. But we know as soon as she puts on the shoes that she’s giving up an important part of her individuality and it’ll never work out. When Belloq betrays her, she is pushed into the Well of Souls with Indy. She loses a shoe and we are shown a shot of a snake slithering through the open toe. Beware of slimy bad guys with pretty shoes – it never works out for the best.

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Michelle Pfeiffer was never better than in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). When the piano playing brothers pick out an outfit for her to wear onstage, she complies initially, but when the cracks start to show she throws the high heels they gave her at them. “These are the wrong f***ing size!” she screams, summing up everything that’s wrong with the box they’re trying to put her in. Brilliant.

From Ariel’s red boots in Footloose (1984), Vivian’s thigh-high PVC boots in Pretty Woman (1990), and even Elizabeth Halsey’s Louboutin shoes in Bad Teacher (2011), shoes have been a mark of individuality for female movie characters for the last 40 years at least. The most interesting example of this is perhaps in From Russia With Love (1963), when James Bond finds out just how dangerous a woman in pointed shoes can be. Rosa Klebb, played with plenty of venom by Lotte Lenya – now there’s a strong-minded woman.

Does the same apply to male characters? The only one I can think of is Pee Wee Herman. When he borrows a pair of platforms in the biker bar during his Big Adventure (1985) and dances to Tequila, we know he’s going to win over the world with his charm and awesome dance moves.

Shoeless, sexy and free

For all the examples of great shoe symbols in movies, there’s the flipside of bare feet. What does it mean with a character has no shoes at all?

It means sexiness, particularly if toenails are being painted, as in Lolita (1962) and The Big Lebowski (1998), for instance. For Quentin Tarantino, bare feet are the ultimate in sexiness, particularly if Uma Thurman is involved. There’s a lot of talking about and watching of bare feet in Pulp Fiction (1994) but my favourite bare-footed character is The Bride in Kill Bill (2003/4). When she wakes from her coma her legs won’t work, so she drags herself from the hospital to the back of a car, and gives her feet a good talking to. “Wiggle your big toe,” she tells herself. And, eventually, she does. What I love about that scene is that we also get the vulnerability of bare feet, a concept which also appears so brilliantly in Die Hard (1988). Bruce Willis running through glass after abandoning his shoes in an attempt to cure jetlag made us realise that action heroes didn’t have to be all muscle and no weakness.

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Leaving behind your shoes can also give you freedom. For instance, in the strange town of Spectre in Big Fish (2003), your shoes are tied together and thrown over the telephone line when you arrive. This frees you from your responsibilities to the outside world. Does Spectre represent death, or maybe happiness? The giving up of your shoes becomes hugely meaningful.

But let’s end up with Robert Redford once more in the great movie version of Neil Simon’s entertaining stage play, Barefoot In The Park (1967). Young uptight lawyer Paul Bratter has just married free spirit Corie (Jane Fonda) who wants him to take off his shoes and walk around in Central Park to demonstrate he’s not a stuffed shirt. Eventually, to save his marriage, Paul capitulates. Except it’s the middle of winter and he has the flu – it’s Corie who has to become the sensible one. She persuades him to put his shoes back on and come home quietly for the sake of his health. It seems life can’t be all barefoot freedom and happiness. We have to put on our sensible shoes every now and again.

There are so many shoe symbols in modern movies – I’ve listed my favourites here but there are many more to find. To finish, I’ll mention maybe the first film ever made about shoes. It was directed by the amazing Lois Weber in 1916 – Weber was a filmmaker who concentrated on issues of social injustice, and in her hour long film Shoes she tells a story of a woman who is so poor that in desperation she sells her virginity to be able to afford new footwear. From her brave example, film has grown to a medium that can tackle any subject with honesty and courage. And a great pair of shoes onscreen ever now and again doesn’t hurt either, does it?