Sermon for Red Shoes

(I’m doing a special guest post as part of Fashion Fridays at my friend’s beautiful blog, Sappho’s Torque.)

From the 1948 film, “The Red Shoes”

When I was in seventh grade, Charlie Chavez asked me to be his date to the homecoming dance.  We attended T.H. Rogers, a public school in Houston for “gifted and talented” kids, all bused in from neighborhoods as diverse and far away from each other geographically and culturally as Denver Harbor, Bellaire, and Third Ward.  Charlie lived in Sharpstown.  His single mother arrived with him to pick me up from my aunt’s townhouse on the Southwest side the night of the dance.

My aunt Julie, my mother’s youngest sister, served as my babysitter and personal style consultant during my pre-teen years.  For one thing, she was much younger than my mother.  For another, she actually cared about things like hemlines and hair accessories whereas my mother, a lifelong athlete, generally lived in sneakers and workout gear.  She rarely wore make-up (or needed it).  So she gave her younger sister the green light to help me prepare for my date with Charlie with the caveat that I wear something age and pocketbook appropriate.

Let me say this by way of confession: I wasn’t getting dolled up for Charlie, bless his heart, who in seventh grade barely reached 5’0’’ tall and whose crush on me showed so blatantly on his face and in his folded-up notes passed by various peers to me in homeroom that it embarrassed me.  I was dressing up for myself, for the world, for my own budding body that I could feel moving into womanhood the way animals sense earthquakes long before they crack the earth open.  And I was getting dolled up for Abassi Parker, an 8th grader and star basketball player on our little school’s team.  I just knew that if my Aunt Julie and I could find the perfect dress for me at 5-7-9 or Foley’s that Abassi might fall in love with me back.

I still remember the dress.  White with a print of tiny, navy blue flowers scattered about its bodice and the three shallow tiers of skirt so typical of eighties wear.  The dress mattered less to me than the accessories, though.  Julie taught me that day in the mall about the importance of a contrast color.   Under the fluorescent lights in a Claire’s boutique, she insisted on red.  Red would perfectly offset the blue and white dress and give me a dash of daring.  Red earrings, red bracelet, red shoes.

Red. Shoes.

Long story short, Abassi Parker did not fall in love with me at the dance, but my outfit did solidify Charlie’s crush on me so that he had the nerve to buy me tickets to The New Kids on the Block concert and leave them in my locker with a half-eaten box of chocolates for my birthday the following February.  And another more enduring love affair was born that night—my own, with red shoes.

Every woman should own a pair of red shoes.

In Western consciousness, the color red has historically pointed to a woman’s promiscuousness and sinful nature.  In Revelations, a harlot appears atop a red beast, carrying in her hand the cup of Babylon.  Revelations 17:4 reads “ And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color and decked with gold and precious stone and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication.”


We all know too of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, the deep red A marking her as an adulteress deserving of exile and castigation.

Red shoes have occasionally shed their shameful history in our cultural consciousness.  Witness Dorothy’s ruby slippers, for example.  But even in that less sexualized version of the red shoe, the slippers work as a symbol of Dorothy’s ability to save herself.  Traveling to Oz, she sought outside help to get home.  Meanwhile, the solution she really needed the whole time would not come from the outside.  The magic elixir, quite literally, carried her body toward the mysterious Oz, and eventually, it carried her back to Kansas.

Perhaps that’s the allure of red as an accessory even in our more tolerant times.  Red hints at something disobedient or powerful in a woman; red is a cheeky emblem of a woman’s inner grit and moxie.   Even as a twelve-year-old girl I intuited that wearing red on my feet meant I would walk into a room on my own terms.

If you ever want to feel your womanhood in all its glory, buy a pair of red shoes and, while you’re getting dressed for the occasion, play David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” on high volume.   It’s one of the sexiest songs ever, especially when the singer pleads:

If you say run, I’ll run with you

If you say hide, we’ll hide

Because my love for you

Would break my heart in two

If your should fall

Into my arms

And tremble like a flower

Let’s dance

Put on your red shoes

And dance the blues.

If you don’t have red shoes, red works in other accessories as well—red lipstick is never a bad bet.   It’s the nod toward audaciousness that matters. Go ahead, red says, I dare you.

The best explanation of the power of red that I’ve ever encountered occurs in poetry, specifically, in Kim Addonizio’s poem “What Do Women Want?”:

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

Poor Charlie Chavez.  He never had a chance.  He could not have understood the powerful thing born in me that day that had nothing to do with boys.

For you, dear readers, here are of a few of this year’s best versions of the red shoe, in my humble and heavily biased opinion:

 Seychelles American Flag Wedge

Frye Oxford Wingtip in Rose

Savannah Clog in Red from Swedish Hasbeens

and, of course, Wendy Davis’ sneakers.


3 thoughts on “Sermon for Red Shoes”

  1. I remember the first time I painted my fingernails–not my toenails–unabashedly RED. I felt like a grown woman, but it was scary, too, in a good way.

    I’m getting more and more comfortable with being pissed off and taking up space. and with red.

    strangely, that David Bowie song became somehow identified as mine & Jill’s song, somewhere in the last 11 years. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks it’s sexy!

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