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Why Do So Many Fairy Tales Feature Magical Shoes?

From Cinderella to Puss in Boots, fairy tale women be wearing shoes

A great pair of shoes can take on magical powers for the women who wear them, but in the case of some folk stories and fairy tales, that magic's real. In literature, shoes are often transformative not just because they're made of glass or rubies: they’re a symbolic means through which women find grounding in the world, and have their lives changed, for better or worse.

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In "The Wearing and Shedding of Enchanted Shoes," Isabel Cardigos, Director of the Research Centre at the Centro de Estudos Ataíde Oliveira in Portugal, wrote, "Shoes are paradoxical objects in that they constrict feet and yet free them to cover greater distances in space." Indeed, fictional shoes enable "positive" transformation in women’s lives, but the "happily ever after" is mostly restricted to traditional gender norms and stereotypes.

The quintessential story of a woman using magical shoes to ascend the social ladder on the arm of her man is the tale of Cinderella.

An 1891 engraving of Cinderella in her old brown shoes. Image: PHAS/Getty

One of the most famous Western renditions of the Cinderella story was penned by the Brothers Grimm in the 1850s. In that version, Cinderella immediately has her beautiful clothes stripped away from her, replaced by dowdy apparel and wooden shoes, while suddenly being told to carry out ridiculous tasks for her step-family. But this is not the fate Cinderella is destined for: she’s a princess at heart, if only she could dress for the job she wants.

In Grimm’s version, she’s gifted a gown and a pair of embroidered, silken heels by a magical bird. With this fancy new look, Cinderella is able to attend the prince’s wife-selection fair, where she uses her silken shoes to walk from the dredges of her miserable life to a castle. For Cinderella, a change of footwear changed her life, twice: the first time for worse, and the second time for the absolute best, back to life of luxury and away from her awful family.

Magical shoes have helped other women characters stroll to where they truly belong, but it isn’t always to the life of a royal. In at least one case, it’s back home to a farm in Kansas.

In Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and later the 1939 film starring Judy Garland, the protagonist is Dorothy, a young girl who lives on a farm with her Aunt and Uncle. While Dorothy has the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and her little dog, too, her most valuable companion is most definitely her pair of ruby slippers (at least in the movie, in the book they were silver shoes — but those don’t pop in technicolor).

Upon arriving in Oz by way of a tornado that tore her house from the ground, Dorothy’s plain old black shoes are magically replaced by the ruby slippers, which had been on the feet of the Wicked Witch of the East. The witch was squashed and killed by Dorothy’s rogue flying house, leaving Dorothy with a new pair of pumps.

Dorothy (in her ruby slippers) and her friends meet the Wizard. Image: Silver Screen Collection/Getty

In her crimson, sparkling heels, Dorothy walks along the yellow brick road in search of Oz’s wizard, who can help her get back to Kansas. Through many trials and tribulations, songs and skipping, Dorothy and her slippers finally make it to the wizard, who tells her that the way home had been on her feet the whole time. To be transported back to the farm, all Dorothy had to do was click the heels of the magical ruby slippers three times.

Dorothy’s relationship with her magical shoes is the opposite of Cinderella’s: Dorothy wants to swap her jewel-encrusted slippers for her hideous farm footwear and a life with her beloved family, whereas Cinderella uses her shoes to get the heck out of dodge and into a palace where she can dress in the finest heels as often as she likes. The key is that both ladies get their happily ever after in the end, all thanks to their size 7s.

But shoes are not always such friendly (side)kicks. As anyone who has walked a day in new heels knows very well: some shoes make for a painful experience that can reduce even the toughest among us to tears.

Magical shoes sometimes serve as cruel, patriarchal crucibles, making women perform gruesome tasks in order to atone for perceived sins. As Cristina Bacchilega, Associate Professor of English with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, tells Racked over email that shoes made of iron often signify "both persistence and self-sacrifice," again, "always a test the heroine must pass in order to access heterosexual bliss with the prince or king."

Shoes made of iron often signify "both persistence and self-sacrifice."

In a Bulgarian tale about a "disenchanted husband," the female protagonist is given away by her father to marry a horse. That evening, in the horse’s stable, the horse transforms into an attractive young man, and the two get busy doing what newlyweds do. But the horse-groom forbids his new wife to reveal to anyone that by night he is a man, and says if she tells a soul she will be forced to wear iron boots and wander the land in search of him. Even if he was half horse, it was clear who wore the (likely four-legged) pants in this relationship.

After only two days, the bride lets the secret slip to her sisters. Her husband forces her to fashion her own iron boots, and then (of course!) flies off to his mother, who is an ogress. The iron-shod wife then walks for ten full years before she finding her winner of a husband. To make matters worse, the horse insists that his wife fill a vase with tears, or his mother will eat her. Sexist tropes — that persist to this day! — abound: women must submit their will to their husbands, and mothers-in-law are horrible beasts who will eat you.

There are instances in which marriage is not involved at all, and female protagonists must suffer in their shoes for reasons related to other stereotypically feminine "sins." Oh good!

But there are instances in which marriage is not involved at all, and female protagonists must suffer in their shoes for reasons related to other stereotypically feminine "sins." Oh good! In Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Red Shoes," a young orphan named Karen receives a fine pair of red shoes from the older woman who took Karen in after her mother passed away. Being quite poor, Karen had never had anything nice before, and became enamored of her new footwear.

After being so distracted in church one Sunday by thoughts of her red shoes, the shoes took on a mind of their own, and Karen began to dance uncontrollably. The dancing became so persistent, that Karen heads to the town’s executioner, and asks him to chop her feet off with the red shoes on them, while she confessed her sins of vanity.

But that wasn’t enough. The now-severed feet and shoes continued to dance outside of the church, where they repeatedly frightened Karen (who was now traipsing about town in wooden feet fashioned by the executioner), compelling her to address her sins further. Making it to church a final time with the help of an angel, Karen becomes so overwhelmed with gratitude that her heart breaks and she dies, all because she cared too much for her red shoes.

A 1948 ballet adaption of "The Red Shoes." Image: Baron/Getty

Bacchilega also says that women’s shoes operate as symbols of social rank, as they did in part in "The Red Shoes." Karen is poor, and once her feet are chopped off, the executioner fashions her shoes of wood, returning Karen to her lowly rank. This is also clear in the case of Cinderella, where she moves from wooden shoes made for performing menial housework to the finest shoes a gal could wish for, and with them a life in a castle with a prince. This is also made evident in one of the earlier tellings of "Puss In Boots."

In the Straparola and Basile telling of this story, Bacchilega says, the cat is female and her "boots are a sign of social standing (like a servant's livery) as clothes in general are an essential class marker in this tale. The cat (this time a mother figure) uses her wits and boots to make the hero's fortune and then expects" the hero to take care of her in return. The female cat is the one with the smarts, yet her station in life must remain on par of that of her humble boots: beneath human men.

There is a very modern conception of women’s lives being driven by shoes (thanks, Carrie Bradshaw), but in fairytales, women’s entire lives could come down to her shoes.

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