From Louboutins to Jordans: How shoes drive economic, political and social change
A woman glares out from under an emerald-green abaya with gold trimmings. She sits high atop a camel in the Dubai desert. Then, the camera pans down to reveal the woman on the camel is wearing six-inch, patent-leather Christian Louboutin “Bianca” platforms. The strategic low angle makes it impossible to miss the stilettos’ signature red soles. It’s at this point in the music video for “Bodak Yellow” that Cardi B spits the record-smashing hit’s most iconic lines: “These expensive / These is red bottoms / These is bloody shoes.”
It isn’t merely a catchy lyric or superficial fashion statement. Cardi B referencing Louboutin’s red soles is a political and cultural statement about feminism, class mobility, female sexuality and power dynamics. These lines turned the song from a mere hit into an anthem.
Since Christian Louboutin introduced his legendary red soles in 1993, the eye-catching bottoms have been a signifier of wealth and success. Louboutins start around the $800-mark and skyrocket from there. The soles just aren’t any red, either; they have their very own Pantone shade (Pantone 18-1663 TPX). The brand has, for the most part, successfully fought off copycats with lawsuits and trademark battles. If you see a red sole, you can be confident its wearer paid a pretty penny for it and wants you to know it.
To further up the ante, Louboutins are notoriously and, some say, purposefully uncomfortable. It’s not uncommon to see a woman tear hers off mere seconds after exiting a party, resigned to cabbing or walking home barefoot. Louboutin himself says he prioritizes “design, beauty and sexiness” over comfort. His shoes aren’t for women who walk or stand for long periods of time. They are shoes for women who take black cars and sit in VIP booths (or, in Cardi’s case, ride camels). And those who lust after the brand are more often than not coveting the lifestyle.
Cardi B’s “bloody shoes” represent her rising the ranks from former stripper to the biggest name in popular music. They illustrate her taking control. The simple scene of her wearing a pair of Louboutins negates the notion that sexuality, fashion and femininity are at odds with being powerful. In this form of symbolism, her Louboutins are not unique, however.
While most people think of shoes as being primarily utilitarian, a case could be made that the human foot is perfectly designed to walking and running on almost any terrain without protection. In fact, footwear has far more to do with identity and expression than mere function. Shoes, for all their shiny patent leather and vibrant shades of suede, are greatly underestimated for their impact on culture, politics and economics, while being greatly overestimated for their faculty.
Just think of today’s most basic, ubiquitous form of footwear: the running shoe. It, too, began as a symbol of wealth and power. When it first debuted as the “plimsoll” in the 1870s, most people couldn’t afford multiple pairs of shoes, and certainly not extra shoes for leisure and sport activities. Of course, by the late-20th century, almost everyone owned a pair of running shoes. So the brands hawking them had to get clever, adding in layers of subtle differentials, signifiers and identity markers.
All-white sneakers often symbolize wealth since a wearer can’t do anything that would get them too dirty and frequently has to purchase new pairs to maintain the fresh look. In sports from soccer to basketball, neon shoes are often seen as a form of peacocking by dominant players. Wearing laughable and over-the-top designs speak to ego and dominance.
Today, most people are convinced we need high-tech athletic shoes to safely and efficiently walk, run, jump and play sports – all things that humans did perfectly well before specialty footwear was ever introduced. In fact, modern shoe technology has been linked to several problems such as overuse of the knees and hips, shortening of calf muscles and the achilles heel, arthritis, osteoporosis and flat feet.
For most of us who have grown up with footwear, we’ve atrophied our feet so much they’re relatively useless when compared to the feet of our ancestors. If shoes hadn’t become mainstream, our feet would probably look much different and have more dexterity, flexibility and strength. They’d be similar to our hands. The very idea that humans need to wear shoes at all is largely a cultural construct. We’ve been on this planet for two-million years – most of those barefoot.
Feeling the need to cover our stinky, putrid, disgusting, dirty feet is mostly in our heads. In a Freakonomics Radio episode discussing the issue, Irene Davis, Director of the Spaulding National Running Center and visiting professor at Harvard Medical School, reflects, “Hands go many more places than feet do. Actually, feet are likely cleaner from a bacterial standpoint… Our feet get sweaty. They get stinky. But that’s because we keep them in shoes. I wonder what our hands would smell like and would our hands get sweaty if we kept them in some device that didn’t let them breathe.”
If you’ve ever taken a boxing class or played hockey and caught a whiff of your hands after an hour in air-starved gloves, you know she’s right. However, it’s socially acceptable to move about barehanded– not so much for walking around barefooted. While we might imagine the taboo to be about health or sanitation, it’s really linked to identifying as part of a certain class. We have a long history of using shoes as a communication tool to tell the world who we are, and in turn, we learn a lot about a person from the shoes they wear. A top society reporter once told me he can most easily asses people’s status and wealth by looking at their shoes. Suddenly, the old adage about judging a man by his shoes doesn’t seem so capricious.
One of the most masterful brands when it comes to linking shoes and identity is Nike. Consider the Air Jordan franchise, which first debuted in the winter of 1985 to mass hysteria and still sells millions of shoes each year. Jordans took the marketplace by storm and created a cult of loyal “Jordan Heads” not only because they looked cool, but because they promised to help wearers “be like Mike.” Calvin Fowler, owner of Air Jordan-only consignment boutique Jordan Heads Brooklyn, once told Newsweek, “The guy played with a full-blown flu. He couldn’t walk off the court. That drive and that ambition transfers into the sneakers as something tangible that we can hold and touch.”
As a result of the brand association, Jordans are linked to a sense of accomplishment – not just in basketball skill (plenty of non-players buy in, too), but in terms of achieving your dreams, embodying their namesake’s determination and unstoppable work ethic and leaving your mark on history. In short, they represent the American Dream. And Nike is fully aware of this association. The company releases the shoes in limited quantities and, inevitably, some people are left behind (also like the American Dream).
Of course, the profound influence of shoes goes beyond Jordans and Louboutins. Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum is a monument to the importance of footwear with over 13,000 artifacts in its collection. In May, the museum will host Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes. The exquisite heels, famously beloved by Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, aren’t flashy or trendy; they’ve maintained the same aesthetic for decades.
Because of this, many consider Manolos to be the antithesis to Louboutins. A woman who wears Manolos isn’t a fashion victim, but someone who has a classic and innate sense of style. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour famously wears only Manolos. She’s been doing so since 1994. As much as Louboutins are symbols of ambition and earned power, Manolos represent the establishment; those who’ve already made it: an upper class that equates showiness with tackiness and simply don’t feel it necessary to try so hard to stand out. Manolos, in this sense, are the “old money” of shoes.
By contrasting Manolos and Louboutins, we might come to understand what specific brands represent for those who sport such footwear, but the history of heels in general also reveals how the symbolism of shoes trumps their faculty. Worn by upper-class men in the 17th century as a symbol of what they didn’t have to do – walking, manual labour, waiting for the bus – heels weren’t considered proper footwear for women until the 18th century.
In The Age of Enlightenment, men might have been seen as inherently rational beings regardless of class and given the right to vote and own land, but women, on the other hand, were considered irrational beings. Of course, wearing heeled footwear is neither rational nor practical, so it fell out of style for men and became associated with womanhood. That heels have never come back into style for mainstream men reflects the continued disempowerment of women.
Carrie and her Manolos in Sex and the City.Giphy
Numerous studies show that it’s advantageous for a man to be taller – it can garner a more attractive mate, more respect from peers and even a promotion with higher earnings. So, why not wear heeled shoes? It’s because a man stands to lose more by giving up some of his male privilege and being associated with femininity than he has to gain by increased height. Remember when Marco Rubio dared to wear stacked-heel ankle boots during his 2016 campaign? The incident was dubbed “Bootgate” and widely mocked. “There’s nothing inherently gendered about high heels,” Elizabeth Semmelhack, Bata Museum curator, told me in a 2015 interview. “If the feminine high heel becomes linked to actual power, then men would be as happy to wear it as women.”
Certainly, shoes have a faculty to them. There are elements of travel and exploration that would be impossible without protective footwear. But the primary function of shoes, whether sneakers, stilettos or even Crocs, isn’t about their practicality; it’s about identity, about communicating who we are to the world around us. That’s why riding a camel in a pair of Louboutins isn’t nearly as ludicrous as it might at first seem.