When You Are Queen: Christian Louboutin at the Design Museum
Last time I bought a new pair of high heels, an eleven-year old admired them.
‘I like your shoes!’ she said. ‘They have red bits at the back!’
‘Thanks,’ I said, beating a swift retreat before she noticed that the ‘red bits’ were in fact open wounds filled with my encrusted blood, patching the backs of my ankles like some kind of visceral rash.
I should have said ‘They’re Christian Louboutin’.
The shoe designer beloved by female celebrities everywhere (Jennifer Lopez has a whole song about them) is so proud of his trademark ‘red sole’ that he recently took erstwhile collaborator Yves Saint-Laurent to court over red sole copyright infringement. He’s also currently the subject of a career retrospective at London’s Design Museum.
He’s notorious for being one of the first designers to insist, in the early 90s, on a heel that truly towers – his shoes average at about 4 1/2 inches; the highest peak at dizzying 6 (‘but mostly only dancers can wear them‘) and if you’re looking for someone to blame when you survey the heights on the high-street and sigh, you could be more unjust than to point your finger at this foot-obsessed Frenchman.
As a teenager, Louboutin’s eye was caught by a ‘No Stilettos’ sign at the Museum of Oceanic Art, Paris: ‘I wanted to defy that,’ he said. ‘I wanted to create something that broke rules and made women feel confident and empowered.’ He’s stuck to this original image for most of his career: there are very few wedges or block heels in his collections; instead, his heels are thin, vertiginously high and splattered with those red soles.
Where such heights can lead is well illustrated by the fate that meets Little Women‘s sixteen-year-old Meg, who wears high heels to a ball – ‘The stupid high heel turned… It aches so, I can hardly stand, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get home’.
Yet this is the sort of height we’re talking about, for the 1860s. Poor Meg was rather dowdily earth-bound compared to Louboutin’s fantastical ‘ballerina’, whose eight-inch high ‘slippers’ are displayed above left. ‘Isn’t the classical dancing ballet slipper the ultimate heel? The heel which makes dancers closer than any other women to the sky, closer to heaven..’ waves Louboutin, airily, in explanation.
He’s predictably fascinated with elevation – the exhibition is full of ‘pedestals’ and ‘birds’. But he’s gone a lot further than previous designers: Meg may have been dowdy in comparison, but even the flappers of the Twenties had modest block heels, and the Fifties heel looks almost mumsy nowadays.
One of the pairs exhibited here is accompanied by an apologia from Louboutin, thus: ‘This shoe is not suitable for walking in. You can only walk from the taxi to the nightclub, and back, on the arm of a man’. When asked about the point that women can’t run in his heels, intended for his ‘confident and empowered’ working women (apparently) Louboutin was incredulous: ‘Who runs at work?‘.
Yet he’s also fascinated by showgirls and ‘classic’ vintage-style women (such as his great admirer, Dita Von Teese, who makes a holographic appearance in this exhibition morphing into a Louboutin pump, in a rather literal appropriation of the fetish we’ll come to presently). Such women, he says, can dance and gyrate for hours at a stretch from atop dizzying heels – Louboutin learned all about this during an early career stint at the Folies Bergere, where showgirls used to put cuts of bloodless meat inside their heels to make them more comfortable.
Perhaps this is echoed in the sexualised red Louboutin sole (originally hastily-applied Chanel nail varnish) – a flash of red as easily representing the raw and bloodied foot itself as the raw and (un)bridled sexuality of the wearer.
Venus in Furs
‘A good shoe is one that doesn’t dress you but undresses you’, Christian reckons – a statement with which Helmut Newton (left) would undoubtedly have agreed. The short David Lynch / Louboutin collaboration film Fetish (2007), extracts from which are on display here, shows sequences of otherwise naked women wearing a series of ‘unwearable’ Louboutin shoes – following Louboutin’s conviction that the part of the female body most naturally fetishised is (you guessed it) the foot.
He’s even got a mini foot anatomy: one of the pumps on display here has a very low vamp, which was initially unpopular. ‘Then I realised, it’s because of the slit‘, he recalls – an unfortunate word, given that he means ‘toe cleavage’. Too much ‘slit’ apparently makes women feel ‘dirty’, but Louboutin’s well into it, although the instep is his favourite part of the foot, perhaps because of his famous belief that the appeal of the high heel is its approximation of the shape a woman’s foot assumes during orgasm.
Of course, Sigmund Freud uses the shoe and foot as an illustration for his writings on the fetish – the mother’s shoe, says Sigmund, represents the penis the child originally assumed she has, and to fixate on it assuages castration anxiety. But symbolic castration via the foot pops up in Louboutin’s favourite fairy tale (whose centrepiece shoes he’s working on for an upcoming film):
‘[The eldest step-sister] could not get her big toe into it, and the shoe was too small for her. Then her mother gave her a knife and said: “Cut the toe off; when you are Queen you will have no more need to go on foot.”
The maiden cut the toe off, forced the foot into the shoe, swallowed the pain, and went out to the King’s son [...] He looked down at her foot and saw how the blood was running out of her shoe, and how it had stained her white stocking quite red.’
- Cinderella, The Brothers Grimm
The mad but occasionally insightful Bruno Bettleheim sees the stepsisters here attempting to make their big feet more dainty, ‘and therefore prove their femininity’ through a symbolic castration (with a literal twist in stage versions, where they are usually in drag). The problem of the shoe being too dainty is one surprisingly near to Louboutin’s methods: although the average female foot size is a 5, he designs and constructs his shoes in size 4 ‘because I prefer to work on a small thing’.
‘He understands women and makes them feel like Cinderellas’ purrs Diane von Furstenberg on the designer. Indeed, it feels appropriate that stilettos, whose c20th renaissance is credited primarily to the 1950s couturier Roger Vivier (for Dior) owe their name to the Italian ‘dagger’ (hence their unpopularity with parquet flooring).
For me, the images in Fetish of these women crawling and sidling about in painfully unwearable shoes sums up this retrospective rather well: a fascination with immobility, and a craving for Fabulous Female Domination that suggests more power than it would actually have were it being negotiated from atop a pair of Louboutin pigalles.
But you look like you could walk down the treacherously lumpy terrain of my naked back, make me lick your Louboutin boots…
‘I declare, it really seems like being a fine young lady, to come home from the party in a carriage, and sit in my dressing-gown with a maid to wait on me,’ said Meg, as Jo bound up her foot with arnica.
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
- Christian Louboutin, Retrospective at The Design Museum, London SE1. Until 9 July 2012.