Art is, and has always been, a mirror reflecting the culture, society, and lifestyle of the artist and his or her time. Naturally, footwear has made the odd appearance in major works of art. In some cases, shoes or slippers have even made a central or significant appearance, serving as both a functional element of a piece and as a symbol of identity or status or some esoteric meaning. Here are a few examples of how footwear is used in artworks, from classical paintings to contemporary installations, and how it has been used to convey meaning, style, and cultural context.
Classical Portraits: Indoor Elegance
In classical art, indoor footwear often featured prominently in portraits of royalty, the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. In that most famous of all portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII is portrayed wearing extravagant-looking, cream silk slippers. Many portraits of notable people of that time (around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), especially of men, featured footwear with fancy embellishments that look entirely unsuitable for walking in – clearly intended to give the impression of wealth, luxury and leisure. These footwear choices were not just fashionable in their time, but also symbols of social status and refinement.
The Symbolism of Shoes
Throughout art history, shoes, including indoor footwear, have been used symbolically to convey deeper meanings. Vincent van Gogh created a number of still life paintings of very old and worn out shoes, all called simply, “A Pair of Shoes”. The worn and battered appearance of the shoes speaks of hardship and poverty. Some believe that they symbolise van Gogh’s own struggle through life, while others say that his intention was to symbolise the hard lives of contemporary labourers. More recently, Andy Warhol created a series of images of footwear, titled “Diamond Dust Shoes”. These featured jumbled piles of glamorous high-heeled shoes, captured and symbolised the materialistic glamour of elements of twentieth century American culture.
Surrealism and Subversion
In the realm of surrealist art, footwear takes on a different dimension. Salvador Dalí had something of an obsession with shoes. He said “All my life I have been so preoccupied with shoes, used in several objects and images – that I wound up converting them into divinities” (what?!). In 1932, he created a sculpture called “The Shoe, Surrealist Object with a Symbolic Function”, which comprised a set of items, including a red court shoe, a matchbox, a spoon, a few photographs and hair. Surreal indeed! René Magritte’s painting “The Red Model” is a grim and rather disturbing image of boots that are part shabby leather footwear and part human foot, as if the boot and the foot have become one. Magritte is thought to have taken inspiration from van Gogh’s “A Pair of Shoes”.
Contemporary Installations and Conceptual Art
In contemporary art, indoor footwear has been used in installations and conceptual pieces to explore themes of identity, memory, and to provide cultural commentary. The Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, created an installation of more than two thousand shoes that he collected when he visited an abandoned refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border. The items had all been left behind when migrants left the camp. He also created “One Man Shoe” sculptures of a single long shoe with toe ends pointing in opposite directions, which evoke the feeling of being pulled in two directions at once.
Footwear’s presence in art extends far beyond mere utility. From classical portraits to surrealism and contemporary installations, it has served as a vehicle for expressing identity, social status, cultural context, and even subversion. Artistic representations of shoes and slippers challenge us to think about the symbolism and meaning beyond the functional role of these everyday objects.