Philippa Stockley: What your red-soled stilettos say about you

Sales of small pots of scarlet paint are rocketing as women seek to spice up their footware. It's a ploy with an illustrious pedigree

Share

Why is a flash of red so exciting, so naughty? The hint of a red bra, red lipstick, a red sock under a City suit, a teasing red shoe?

That Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City seemed almost welded to her towering red-soled Louboutin stilettos, also beloved of real women such as Rihanna, Kate Moss and Victoria Beckham, is well known. But, last week, Homebase reported that sales of tester pots of red paint had rocketed because women have been painting their shoe soles red to mimic the covetable foot-coverings. It's an unforeseen, Blitz-spirited twitch in the row that broke out last year between Christian Louboutin and Yves St Laurent over whether a red sole can be trademarked. YSL had made red shoes with red soles and Louboutin took umbrage. Zara, also selling a red sole, got embrangled. The gist of the complex argument was about whether Louboutin could trademark what has been a feature of his top-end shoes for 20 years. Yes, colours can be trademarked in particular circumstances; Whiskas purple is one. But last month, Louboutin lost against Zara in the French high court, which decided that ideas must be free.

So why do some women enjoy wearing the flashing red insteps that are especially visible from the rear, apart from their whiff of money? Obviously the shoes are sexy to many, and red attracts attention. Female baboons have flashed inflammatory bottoms at their admirers for centuries and old tricks are usually good ones. The earliest record of women using shoes to attract interest from behind is by prostitutes in Ancient Greece, whose studded sandals left an imprint of the words "follow me".

But it was men who started the red-heel thing, wearing them at court in the 17th and 18th century, as a 1701 portrait of Louis XIV in red heels and finely turned white stockinged legs, by Hyacinthe Rigaud, shows. Women soon caught on. The V&A has a pair with a high red-leather heel, dated 1700. Even earlier, in Venice, courtesans favoured red for their high chopines – platform shoes towering up to an eye-watering 18 inches, which even Lady Gaga might totter at. There's a pair in the corner of Vittore Carpaccio's 1490 picture, Two Venetian Ladies on a Balcony. Those blond-haired "ladies" were tarts.

We consider red the most exciting, daring colour. At a fundamental level, it is the colour of arterial blood, or fire, so we are conditioned to react to it instantly, to avoid potentially fatal danger. It's also the colour of flushing: sexual not only in baboons, but as a sign of attraction between humans. It's not called "hot" for nothing. This is why reddened lips and rouge, or blusher, have brought accusations of immoral behaviour since their earliest, pre-Christian use. Chris de Burgh's "Lady in Red" trope is constantly mutating; from the Virgin, in her beautiful, costly red cloak in many Renaissance portraits, to Jessica Rabbit in the 1980s film Who Shot Roger Rabbit, to the "little red dress" that turns any woman into a confident vamp. While the consistent element is attractiveness, variable bolt-ons include connotations of wealth, immorality, or allure.

Visible red sits at the far end of the light spectrum, just before infrared. Interestingly for such a stirring colour, red has a long wavelength and so a low frequency. But unable to perceive that, we are instead drawn to the overt visual thump of red, like moths to flame.

Red lake, red lead, red ochre, madder; Indian, Prussian, and Spanish reds; cadmium and Mars red; alizarin, vermilion, and scarlet are just some of the names of different pigments given, as artists tried to capture the thrill and beauty of red, used both in paintings and in dying cloth for clothes. For by dressing ourselves in the stimulating colour, we take on, and give off, some of its qualities and attributes.

As long as people have worn red, there have been attempts to monopolise or reserve it for particular ranks or classes. Along with Tyrian purple, red was briefly an imperial colour in Rome, though it was also used for wedding veils, and red is still a wedding colour in India, China, and other parts of the world where it represents good luck and happiness. Tudor sumptuary laws or "statutes of apparel" had complex rules about who could wear what, from furs and silks to cloths of gold, and types of shoes. And colour. Just as now, shrewd judgements about class were made from dress.

In a 1533 Act, Henry VIII authorised academic doctors to wear scarlet, which suggests that it was denied others. But though such attempts have gone on throughout history, they usually failed. It is impossible to control our desire to dress as we please. We instinctively resist attempt to be colour-coded, unless, as with political and other affiliations, such as a Manchester or Arsenal, we embrace them ourselves.

Red can be expensive: kermes, and cochineal (both from crushed scale insects), which gave the first bright, clear scarlets, were costly. But there were cheaper reds such as madder, and this is partly why the English army adopted what was initially a darker, softer red. In 1645, Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army had 12 foot regiments of 1,200 men each, all dressed in "Venetian red". They were quickly called Redcoats, and the term stuck. Like football players, soldiers in close combat needed instant certainty over who they were jamming a halberd into. It was only from the mid-1850s when smokeless powder, and rifles, made longer-range fighting possible, that red tunics became a target.

Some cardinals, who also wear red, have been considered as dangerous as an entire regiment. Cardinal Richelieu was a case in point; less so, perhaps, Biggles and Fang in Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition sketches. Head to toe incarnadine, from the now sadly redundant galero (wide brimmed hat) to their cassock and mozzetta, the blood red garments indicate willingness to die for their faith.

Now that the army mostly wears khaki, and hunting scarlet – or "pink" – is hardly likely to increase, some men are affecting red trousers or socks, statement garments that may still imply association or attempted association with class or rank. The Look at my fucking red trousers! blogspot has photos of men in strident bifurcated garments, many humorously captioned "toff". Red hose can attract disproportionate opprobrium, as when the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott referred to the former Press Complaints Commission chairman Christopher Meyer as a "red-socked fop" upon publication of his memoirs.

We make political affiliations with colour too, although they are historically inconsistent. The red of socialism or communism and the British blue of Conservatism have reversed since the 18th century, where the radical Whig Charles James Fox adopted George Washington's blue uniform, in opposition to the Conservatism of George III, who sometimes wore military red. Today, American Democrats still embrace blue, so it is their Republican opponents who brand themselves in red.

As with so many other things, women now show brilliance where men first presided. But if any modern man fancies trying the spellbinding effect of a flashing and dashing 18th-century red instep on the opposite sex, tester pots cost £1.59.

Phillipa Stockley is a painter and author of 'The Edge of Pleasure' and 'A Factory of Cunning'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Content Manager

£26000 - £31000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Content Manager is re...

Recruitment Genius: Senior .Net Application Developer

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £17500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will b...

Recruitment Genius: Continuous Improvement Manager

£41500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would tackle our looming dementia crisis

Susan Greenfield
 

Letters: NHS data-sharing is good for patients

Independent Voices
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee