Essay by Christel Tsilibaris Shoes, Eroticism and Fetish

Christel Tsilibaris

We girls all have a little bit of Carrie Bradshaw in us whether we dare to admit it or not. Most of us share a genuine appreciation and adulation for well made and beautiful shoes, an overwhelming desire to own the latest “shoes of our dreams” spotted in shop windows: some of which we will only ever wear once (if that), and an absence of reason when paying the extortionate sums. This is a never-ending story and we know it. New shoes will appear each season and will seem to be the one missing link in our wardrobes. Yes, I do admit and I am proud of my shoe collection. In 2001 Imelda Marcos of the Philippines opened a museum to exhibit her thousands of shoes. Like Imelda, my shoe collection expands dangerously outside the confines of my closet, but provides me immense visual pleasure and the feeling of being desirable when on my feet.

Pleasure and desire are the “file conducteur” in this programme dedicated to shoes. Here the seductive powers of female footwear will be explored through the male attraction to the foot dressed in a shoe, as well as through the female fascination with the actual fashionable object. An early 20th Century shoe advert from the Galeries Lafayette thus serves a fit introduction to tantalise our senses. In her accounts of the events and scandals at the Spanish court of the 17th Century, Madame D’Aulnoy, the writer of historical novels, travel books and fairy tales, recounts the daring behaviour of Don Juan de Tassis y Peralta, the Count of Villamediana. The Count who was enamoured with Queen Elizabeth of Spain plotted the breakout of a fire during a theatre performance which the Queen was attending. Feigning a rescue of the sovereign, he carried her out in his arms. When in a safe place under a small staircase, the Count, driven by his passion, took some liberties and performed an unthinkable exploit took an unthinkable liberty and touched the Queen’s foot. According to Mme D’Aulnoy, his indiscretion didn’t pass unnoticed and the Count died soon afterwards at the hands of the Court. Though this incident took place in 17th Century Spain, its anecdotal qualities of foot attraction, transgression and, finally, punishment are echoed in the plots of Edwin S. Porter’s The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903) and Marcel Fabre’s Amor Pedestre (1914).

Porter’s fictional short The Gay Shoe Clerk is a story about a shoe clerk who gets attracted to a young lady while assisting her shopping for shoes, and consequently punished by her chaperone’s umbrella. Filmed at the beginning of the century, at a time when amorous behavior was timid and revealing legs was for the most part reserved for music hall entertainment, Porter’s film is a daring staging of a more boisterous reality. Through the close-up of the shoe and leg, Porter gives the opportunity to the entire audience, not just those few in the front rows, to voyeuristically participate in this titillating adventure (1). His film enables the male spectator to identify with the audacious clerk while safely seated in the dark theater and hence in no immediate danger of castigation (2).

Similarly, the male hero in Fabre’s Amor Pedestre pursues a lady whom he encounters in the streets. Despite her lack of interest, he closely follows her into a tramway and around the streets of a big city. The passivity and objectification of the female character is noteworthy in these two films, recalling Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” (3). Mulvey suggests that in the phallocentric order of narrative film the female figure is displayed purely as a sexual object, to be observed and desired by the male hero as well as the male spectator (4). In Fabre’s film the passivity and sexual objectification of the female figure is channeled through and focused on the feet and shoes, the main feature on show.

In both The Gay Shoe Clerk and Amor Pedestre the feet are concealed, not bare. The attractive part of the human body, therefore, is not the bare foot – which, according to George Bataille, is “man’s secret horror” and which needs to be concealed (5) – but the shoe that clothes it. Hence, the shoe becomes an extension of the body, a second skin that arouses sexual tensions. In a similar way, the Italian shoe advert Anche le scarpe parlano (1949) cleverly deploys the shoe in a seduction scenario between a man and a woman. It is hard to ignore here the fact that the seductive quality of female footwear has become a commodity tool used to attract potential buyers. In the advert, the woman carefully chooses her footwear according to the circumstances in which she encounters her romantic interest. Through the appropriate shoe she will convey the correct message to the opposite sex. Though narrated by a male voice (again suggesting the phallocentric order), the woman in the advert seems to have considerable agency, using her sexuality smartly through the choice of her shoes.

In all these films shoes are the vehicles of attraction rather than objects of desire in themselves. In Luis Buñuel’s film Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), however, this line is crossed and the shoes become a fetish object. Buñuel’s story finds its origin in the novel of Octave Mirbeau. The plot follows the young Célestine who goes to work as a chambermaid in rural France of the late 1920s (6). Her employers are a dysfunctional bourgeois family of three, all of whom carry out clandestine activities behind closed doors. Rabour, the master of the household, owns an album of dirty postcards and a collection of ladies’ footwear. He obliges his maids to wear black leather boots while they read to him. He, in turn, strokes their boots and calves lustfully during this session. Part-way into the film he is found dead, lying naked in bed, clutching a pair of boots in his arms.

The scene invokes Sigmund Freud’s notion of “pathological fetishism.” Fetish, according to Freud, is “a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and (…) does not want to give up” (7) for fear of castration. The adult uses the inanimate item as substitute for a real object of sexual desire, one that can facilitate sexual arousal when in contact with a desired person, or one that can exist as the unique sexual interest, making the person altogether irrelevant. Rabour is one of these “pathological fetishists” whose sexual force becomes of no threat to Célestine – she yawns out of boredom when obliged to obey her boss’s demands. Célestine for Rabour functions as the catalyst of a resurrection of the leather boots as animated sexual objects. She is not a passive female character, the “bearer of meaning,” and the ultimate object of desire. On the contrary, she is an active heroine who steers the plot to her convenience, subverting the idea of sexual objectification.

The male gaze towards the feminine footwear seems to dominate this selection of films. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the pleasures afforded by female shoes (and feet) are not solely reserved to the male viewer. For one, the Carrie Bradshaw in me cannot help but admire the beauty of the shoes presented in these films and adverts spanning footwear fashions from the beginning of the century to the mid-sixties. Importantly, Bradshaw acknowledges and enjoys the seductive power invested in shoes from which she derives personal pleasure, as well admiration from others, whether they are men or women.
(1) Kemp R. Niver, The First Twenty Years: a Segment of Film History (Los Angeles: Artisan Press, 1968), p. 36.
(2) Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (New York: Scribner’s, 1990).
(3) Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen (Fall 1975).
(4) Ibid, p.
(5) Georges Bataille, “The Big Toe”, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings 1927-1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p.21.
(6) Luis Bunuel stated several times that Jeanne Moreau was perfect for the role of Célestine especially because of the characteristic manner of her walking in high-heeled shoes, with a slight swaying of her ankles.
(7) Sigmund Freud, Fetishism, Standard Edition vol. 21 (London: Hogarth Press, 1927), p.152.

© Christel Tsilibaris 2006

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