Why are red shoes such a significant symbol?
When Dorothy clicked her heels together in The Wizard of Oz, her ruby-red slippers took her home.
In the classic 1948 film The Red Shoes, a pair of—you guessed it—red shoes helped the lead character become a prima ballerina. That film was based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, in which a girl buys red shoes “fit for a princess” and ends up dancing her way to a foot amputation (it’s a pretty grim story).
And in Showtime’s The Red Shoe Diaries, various characters find love (or, more often, lust) and write their stories to a newspaper personal ad titled “Red Shoes.” The symbolism of the red shoes aren’t ever explained, but they don’t really require explanation: They’re sinful, decadent, and eye-catching.
One psychologist even wrote that wearing red shoes can increase a person’s confidence. Red shoes might not transport you to the land of Oz, but they do seem somewhat magical.
Our cultural obsession with red shoes may have a scientific basis.
Granted, it’s a tenuous connection, but we’ll make it anyway. Many animal species use the color red for their courtship rituals.
Humans appear to attribute some significance to red, but the color’s influence is one-sided. One 2010 study found that red “appears to be specific to women’s romantic attraction to men: Red did not influence men’s perceptions of other men, nor did it influence women’s perceptions of men’s overall likability, agreeableness, or extraversion.”
But another study found that men are just as attracted to red as women. What gives?
“It’s only recently that psychologists and researchers in other disciplines have been looking closely and systematically at the relationship between color and behavior. Much is known about color physics and color physiology, but very little about color psychology,” said Andrew Elliot, one of the authors of the study. “It’s fascinating to find that something as ubiquitous as color can be having an effect on our behavior without our awareness.”
Scientists are still learning how color affects psychology.
As for why red shoes are significant, well, there’s no scientific explanation, but shoes are one of the most immediately noticeable parts of a person’s wardrobe. According to conventional wisdom, your shoes are the first thing people notice about you—wear around a pair of bright-red shoes, and you can be sure that you’re drawing some attention.
Given that red shoes are associated with sensuality, it’s no surprise that some people also associate them with sinfulness and pride (we’re looking at you, Hans Christian Andersen).
There’s something slightly foreboding about red; it’s the color of blood, and therefore one of the most important colors in the course of human evolution. Color perception varies across cultures, and some cultures don’t have words for certain colors. Most still have words for black, white, and red, however, as these are three descriptors necessary for survival.
While we’re not sure whether all cultures have the “red shoes” trope, it does seem to be a compelling symbol to Western audiences. Keep that in mind the next time you’re wearing a bright pair of red shoes—you’re wearing an important cultural symbol, and people will undoubtedly notice.