The Symbolic Meaning of Shoes
Shoes are everywhere in our society. You can tell a lot about someone's economic class, fashion taste, and identity by taking a look at what shoes they're wearing. Similarly, the types of shoes people choose to own can be an important means of cultural expression and self-identity. For instance, does wearing heels to the office make you feel like a powerful professional? Does collecting the freshest new athletic sneakers fill you with pride? Does wearing Birkenstocks year-round fit in with your free-spirited, home-grown aesthetic?
It's obvious that shoes are an incredibly prominent aspect of fashion, culture, and personal style. But did you know that shoes have meanings even beyond those everyday interpretations?
In this article, we'll look at a few of the different ways that shoes have meaning:
- Shoes and Religious Symbolism
- High Heels and Gender
- Slippers in Pop Culture
- Shoe Dream Interpretations
Shoes, Respect, and Religion
Shoes are steeped in custom and symbolic meaning. For instance, removing one's shoes can be a sign of respect, especially when entering a sacred space. In the Bible, shoes sometimes signify servitude, lowliness, or unholiness. Many cultures consider shoes to be dirty, as they frequently touch the ground and occupy the lowest part of the human body. Indeed, Arab cultural tradition regards it as a grave insult to show someone the sole of your shoe. To hit someone with a shoe is even more insulting, giving an extra layer of meaning to the shoe-throwing incident involving George W. Bush.
High Heels, History, and Gender
Shoes with high heels have historically been worn by powerful men. Throughout history, dating back to at least the 16th century, wealthy men in different cultures wore high heels to symbolize their social status. Heeled shoes served no practical purpose for male European aristocrats other than to display luxury and privilege; these men never had to walk for long distances.
High Heels Were Invented for Men
The origin of high-heels can be traced back to Persia in the 15th century, where soldiers considered heels to be useful for horseriding; they were worn to help secure soldiers' feet in their stirrups. Most of modern society probably isn't aware that high heels were invented for use by men, as they are now a well-known symbol of femininity and female sexuality.
This also signifies a change in gendered stereotypes and expectations over the centuries; in modern times, women's desirability is often linked to physically impractical and even seemingly foolish fashion choices. Men are supposed to appear practical, physically capable, and rational, in opposition to women as weak, emotional, and irrational.
High heels are such a gendered symbol in these days that, in most communities, anyone other than a ciswoman who wears heels will draw stares. That's because it's a clear challenge to normative expectations of gender performance; when a queer or trans person wears heels in public, it can visually "out" them to everyone in the space. It's rare for a cis, straight man to wear heels, other than as a misogynistic joke.
Economic Class and Sexual Symbolism
In my opinion, heels can be divided into two categories: classy and trashy. Classy heels are either subdued pumps that can be worn at work, out to events, on a date, or practically anywhere; they are often not overly ornamented and don't have a platform under the toe. Classy shoes can also be extravagant, expensive, precariously high heels with plenty of flourish that can only be worn by wealthy people to fancy events—with valet parking, so walking in them won't be an issue, of course.
"Trashy" heels, which can just as easily be called "fun" or "sexy," depending on the desired connotation, are heels that symbolize sexuality. Think of the pleasers worn by strippers, blinged-out pumps worn to the club, or classic high stilettos that scream "femme fatale." These heels might also come in more shiny or gaudily ornamented styles that for various problematic reasons seem to be associated with cheapness, promiscuity, and/or certain non-Western styles.
Slippers in Pop Culture
We all know about Dorothy's ruby slippers and Cinderella's glass slipper. What's the symbolic meaning there? There are a few theories out there, but at least this much is clear: these fictional shoes are powerful and either provide or symbolize magical abilities for the wearer.
Cinderella's Glass Slippers
Some people think Cinderella's glass slippers might hint at themes of virginity; glass is delicate, its shattering is irreversible, and at one time it was an expensive commodity. It's also believed by some that the glass slipper—pantoufle de verre in French—could possibly have been a mistranslation of the term pantoufle de vair, which means “fur slipper.” A fur slipper is an even more obvious metaphor for a vagina, although the symbol works regardless of the shoe's material once the prince requires a body part to be inserted into the slipper to see if it fits.
Dorothy's Ruby Slippers
What about Dorothy's shoes? Some believe that L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a political piece describing the presidential election of 1896. Candidate William Jennings Bryan of the Populist Party campaigned against the Gold Standard—an economic principle, still upheld at the time, stating that all U.S. paper currency should correspond to an actual reserve of gold in the federal treasury. In Baum's original story, Dorothy's shoes were silver. It's possible that this populist interpretation is nothing more than conjecture; however, we do know that the ruby slippers hold dear symbolic and emotional meaning for much of the American public.
Interpreting Dreams of Shoes
Due to all these complex cultural meanings associated with footwear, shoes have lodged themselves deep into the subconscious world as well. Sometimes shoes will manifest in dreams as our psyches grapple with issues they might signify to us. According to 10,000 Dreams and Traditional Meanings by Edwin Raphael:
- Dreaming of seeing your shoes "ragged and soiled" symbolizes that you will make enemies due to your unfeeling criticisms.
- If your shoes are "blackened," the future holds an improvement for your affairs, and an important event that will cause your satisfaction.
- New shoes in dreams foretell changes which will prove beneficial.
- If the shoes pinch your feet, you will be the uncomfortable subject of practical jokes.
- Untied shoes denotes loss, personal conflict, and ill health.
- Boots that are old and torn indicate sickness and tribulations in your future.
- Losing your shoes in a dream is a sign of abandonment, desertion, or divorce.
- Dreaming that the shoes you're wearing are admired by others could be a warning to be wary of becoming too familiar with new acquaintances.
- Seeing someone else wearing your boots in a dream is a sign that someone will be overtaking the affections of your love interest or romantic partner.
- A dream of wearing new boots could be a sign of luck, such as a promotion in your professional life.
- A dream about slippers foretells that you will soon enter an unfortunate alliance; for example, you may become romantically involved with someone who is married, resulting in scandal and emotional difficulty.
In Greek culture, empty shoes can also be a sign of death, much like a funeral wreath for some Americans. Empty shoes places outside of a Greek home would tell others that there had been a death in the family—namely, that someone's son had died in battle. At a memorial for the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, 3,000 empty shoes were used to commemorate those who had died. Dreams of empty shoes could hold a similar meaning.