Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Red Shoes: Encouraging judging or discouraging materialism?

"The Red Shoes" by Hans Christian Andersen is a fairly standard tale in which a girl is punished for vainly wearing red shoes. After going from poverty to a more comfortable situation, Karen wears her new red shoes to inappropriate situations; one day, she goes dancing and the shoes won't stop dancing. Her feet must be cut off before she can regain control, and after that she becomes a penitant Christian, sworn to simplicity.

Karen before-shallow and vain

Karen afterwards-repentant and reformed (both illustrations by Katharine Cameron)

Andersen obviously felt quite strongly about red shoes. And while most would agree that vanity can go too far, the punishment far outweighs the crime. While red shoes themselves aren't quite as taboo anymore, the concept of judging people by what they choose to wear is still very prevalent (hello, popular TLC show "What not to Wear").

I feel I'm somewhat qualified to share my thoughts on this subject since I've sort of come full circle on it. When I was little I loved wearing dresses and was a total girly girl. As I went through middle and high school, I considered myself too feminist to pander to the shallow expectations of men that women should only dress in ways that please them. I was already a firm believer in the message of Beauty and the Beast, not to judge by appearances, and I was also very influenced by children's books-including fairy tale stories like Robin Mckinley-in which the heroine is outcast because she doesn't fit into her usually Victorian-like society, but is athletic and outgoing and doesn't care about dressing up. This heroine is always appreciated for her inner beauty by the most desirable male character in the book anyway.

While I was in this phase, I totally judged the pretty, popular girls. I realize now, in retrospect, I was jealous; but I assumed girls who wore trendy or dressy clothes were shallow and snobbish. In my protest about being judged, I passed judgement myself.

During college I experienced a turnaround. I still believe we shouldn't judge people by shallow standards like appearances, but I realized that I truly enjoy wearing feminine clothes like I did when I was little. For me, putting outfits together is a creative outlet. Since I've started dressing this way, I do occasionally fear people are looking down on me the way I used to look down on others.

So, I approach this fairy tale with mixed emotions (this also applies to Beauty and the Beast, in which Beauty contrasts her sisters, who care only about clothes and jewelry at the expense of her father; whereas Beauty cares nothing about material things and instead has love for her father and appreciates roses and other forms of nature-as if these passions couldn't coexist). A part of me is indignant, as well as being aware of the drastic changes in culture and expectations in fashion since Andersen's time. But a part of me realizes I spend too much money and shoes, clothes, and accessories, and that my appearance can become too important to me. And part of me is just defensive of fairy tales, which seem to get so much abuse.

How do you interpret this tale?


  1. I remembered a discussion on other red shoes on Sur:


    Tracing red hot iron shoes to ruby slippers is certainly thought provoking!

  2. Fascinating discussion! Thank you for the link