Christian Louboutin, What’s So Special About Red-Soled Shoes
French shoemaker Christian Louboutin — known for his sexy stilettos and his trademark scarlet soles — is planning to appeal a New York Court decision that gives rival company Yves Saint Laurent permission to continue producing its own red-soled shoes. The ruling means that other shoe companies — from Jimmy Choo to Payless — could start producing their own red bottom shoes, diluting Louboutin’s brand and signature. Some online commentators have wondered why Louboutin and others are so crazy about red soles. Can’t YSL find another color? Can’t Louboutin get over himself? Why is this even an issue?
Some context: Louboutin has painted the soles of his shoes red since 1992, when he first swiped some bright nail polish on a pair for the hell of it. Soon — thanks to a devoted celebrity clientele and a prominent role in the Sex and the City film — the red sole became inextricably linked with Louboutin’s name. He trademarked it in 2008.
For Louboutin, red symbolizes sex and sensuality — and serves as a crafty, subtle branding tool. “I selected the color because it is engaging, flirtatious, memorable and the color of passion,” he told The New Yorker in March. But red also carries connotations of wealth and power, particularly in the history of fashion and footwear. (Nope, Louboutin was not the first to paint the bottoms of his shoes red.) It is perhaps why red remains such an attractive color for shoe designers — and why they are willing to battle in court over its use.
In Western societies, red has long served as a symbol of ferocity and power, worn by soldiers, monarchs, the papacy and other important people. The Ancient Greeks and Romans carried red flags in battles, and as late as the 18th century soldiers wore red into battle to intimidate their enemies. In her book The Red Dress, fashion historian Valerie Steele describes how Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy asserted his strength when he arrived in Paris in 1406, victorious and wearing “a red velvet suit lined with grey fur and worked over with gold foliage.” It’s a tactic that has remained popular among executives and politicians: Think of the Wall Street execs from the ’80s with their red suspenders or ties, or Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi in their red “power suits” today.
Red also signified privilege: Red dyes were expensive to produce, so only those with power and status could afford to wear them. (The Chinese said that red dye was made of dragon’s blood — giving the color a precious, rare, magical quality.) Many European societies imposed sumptuary laws, which dictated what certain social classes could wear, and in some red was reserved for princes or nobility. (One of the people’s demands during the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany during the 16th century was the right to wear red, and, of course, the French Revolutionaries adopted the color as a symbol of rebellion.)
One particular mark of class distinction was the red-heeled shoe, which aristos began sporting in the 1600s. Charles II of England wore them; a 1675 portrait of him shows that his shoes had not only red heels but red soles as well. But it was Louis XIV of France who made them so popular and established them as a symbol for the monarchy throughout Europe. Red heels were so important to the Sun King that he passed an edict saying that only members of the nobility by birth could wear them. According to Philip Mansel’s Dressed to Rule, the painted heels showed that nobles did not dirty their shoes. But they also showed that their wearers were “always ready to crush the enemies of the state at their feet.” Privilege and power.
The French Revolution banished the “Louis heel,” although other European nobility continued wearing them, including in England. But red shoes would resurface again — in culture and in fashion.
Hans Christian Andersen used the red shoe as a symbol of wealth and vanity in his morality fairytale The Red Shoes. Clearly, he shared the French Revolutionaries’ distrust of red footwear. Fashion illustrations from the 1920s and ’30s, however, depict rouge heels not as symbols of class oppression and power, but of fun and coquetry. A drawing from a 1920 catalog at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s archives in New York shows a slim, elegant woman in a fur-trimmed coat and cloche hat wearing adorable black shoes with red heels. The surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli’s famous “shoe” hat — an upside-down shoe worn on one’s head — had a shocking-pink heel.
The 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz swapped Dorothy’s silver shoes in the book for ruby slippers, which had red soles. Dorothy’s slippers not only conveyed magic and whimsy, they also gave her confidence and said something about the transformative power of fashion — or of a particular accessory or garment.
More recently, red soles have brought glamour and sex appeal to the shoe. Valentino Garavani, the perennially tanned and fabulous Italian couturier, has intermittently produced red-heeled shoes since 1969 to go with his famous elegant red gowns. (The color he uses, an orange-y rogue, is often called “Valentino red.”) In the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent — known for his gender-bending, sexy fashions that empowered women — established the monochrome shoe, which is entirely covered in one color. YSL produced purple, blue and, yes, red monochrome shoes throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Another famed shoemaker, Charles Jourdan, also painted the soles of his shoes red; Louboutin worked for him in the ’80s before starting his own business.
Today, a flash of a red sole not only screams “Louboutin” — it also reveals something about the wearer. She is, like her Medieval and Renaissance precursors, well-off or upwardly mobile. The red makes her feel powerful (like John the Fearless or YSL’s women), as well as sexy and maybe even naughty. In its profile of the shoe designer, the New Yorker called the red soles “a marketing gimmick that renders an otherwise indistinguishable product instantly recognizable.” Yet for many designers and consumers — and even, I think, for Louboutin — the red sole is much more than that.
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