Tag Archives: slipper

It Aint What You Shoe It’s The Way That You Shoe It


A vast amount of what I did for the first month of the first lockdown was extensively and minutely deconstructing Cinderella variations. It started as a process to identify what exactly a Cinderella story is, what elements are present in all of the different versions. I say “all of the versions”, There are more than 700, some scholars claim over a thousand. I’m collaborating with another storyteller and together we are examining in detail a sample of 21 stories, carefully selected through rigorous, scientific criteria such as “We’ve got to have this one: there’s a talking horse in it!”.

Inspired by questions like “Do all Cinderella’s have a Fairy Godmother?” (Nope. Not by a long way), or “How many have wicked step mothers?” (significantly less than half), we have uncovered some shocking statistics. Our perception of the story has been altered to a point that will be hard to explain in the time available for a theatre show. One of the surprising revelations being that the apparently desirable royal male is far from the bland, two dimensional, characterless but handsome, Identikit prince that we initially thought.

I wrote In January about the problem with princes failing to recognise the heroine and going away with a step sister who has cut her toes off, but that is just the tip of the deeply disturbing princeberg. In the popular imagination, a glass slipper being taken around to all the women in the country until the ash covered kitchen wench puts her foot in it and is re-united with her paramour, sits at the centre of the Cinderella myth. Statistically though, only one out of the full seven hundred styles a slipper of glass, and a mere half of the tales in our sample feature footwear of any sort. So bear in mind that, Out of the 21 ‘princes’ we have looked at (some are kings, some are just rich blokes), the following litany of dodgy shoe related behaviours take place within only twelve tales and our experience so far is that even worse are likely to come to light if you look any further.

Four of the princes, having become enamoured of their respective sink skivies, are unable to find out who they are or where they come from. In two of these cases the posh plonker hasn’t even attempted to engage the object of his “affection” in conversation or considered asking her directly. The other two have asked but, despite getting no answer, have failed to get the hint. These four delightful examples of regal breeding take it in to their heads that they have a right to know and that the best way to find out is to obtain one of her shoes. This they set about doing by taking tar (or in one case, honey) and spreading it all over the exit of a public building. Nobody questions this and no charges are brought.

One prince obtains the hapless girl’s shoe by sending a servant to pursue her coach until, in her hurry to get away, she sheds a slipper. Another takes matters in to his own hands and, grabbing her foot as she tries to ride away from the church, hangs on until he hauls her multicoloured mule from it’s mount.

Four more royal males begin a search for our leading lady without ever having met her: they simply find her little, lost slipper and become obsessed with marrying the woman whose foot would be small enough to fit. The two, so called, lovers do not exchange so much as a word before the testing of the tiny treads brings about their, usually instantaneous, wedding. That’s a full 20% of cinderella stories being basically a shoe fetishists fantasy.

Most of the twelve slipper searchers simply announce that they are going to marry the woman who can get the slipper on. No further proposal is made. In fact out of the entire cohort of monarchical muppets, only two actually ask the female protagonist if she wants to marry him and only one gets a positive answer, but all of them end up married regardless.

This reveals a dizzying level of assumption and entitlement on the part of the sovereign slipper snatchers and a terrifying lack of choice or control for the women involved. If you have ever told one of the seven hundred or more Cinderella stories to a child, it might be worth having a think about what they are being trained to accept, or even aspire to, when their impressionable young ears hear it.

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If The Shoe Fits


There is a motif in quite a few folk tales in which two people who have fallen in love are separated and one or both of them can not recognise the other when they meet again. Let me give you an example: In Cinderella and many of it’s variants, the Prince falls in love with Cinders at the first ball, spends all evening with her for the next two days often having “eyes for no one but her”, yet his method for identifying the mesmerising beauty who has won his heart is entirely dependant on her fitting the shoe that fell off her foot. In a whole bunch of the variants, when the step sisters cheat by cutting their toes off to make their feet small enough, HRH Charming doesn’t even seem to notice that he has the wrong woman and it takes a magical bird singing a warning rhyme for him to realise his mistake, twice, making him possibly the most obtuse idiot in all folk tale.

It’s not just lovers who suffer from face blindness, or prosopagnosia to give it it’s official name, In folktale world. Mixed sex pairs of siblings who are very fond of each other frequently exchange portraits, rings or other tokens, before one of them goes away for any length of time, and cannot be re-united without producing them as proof of identity. 

Now, I have some sympathy since I struggle to recognise faces especially if I meet someone in a different context to that in which I have previously seen them. It is my firm belief that characters in films should remain in the same clothing throughout unless they change during a scene. Not that they have to change on camera of course, they can go behind a screen or in to another room, but they should be involved in continuous dialogue so I know who they are when they return looking like a different person. Nevertheless, my facial recognition fault is fairly mild and has certainly never extended to anyone I was hopeful of forming a long term relationship with after three nights of constant intimate communion, nor to any family members. 

Since I know plenty of people who don’t seem to have a problem divining anyone’s identity by the arrangement of their facial features and aren’t phased when movie characters appear in random outfits from one scene to the next, I assume prosopagnosia is fairly rare. Indeed, it is only officially diagnosed in around 2% of the population. So I began to wonder if the story making petrie dish of medieval Europe had experienced an epidemic of some sort to bring about such widespread identification breakdown. A few instances could theoretically be accounted for by the rarity of spectacles amongst the general population, however, when I asked around to see what my storytelling colleagues and friends thought, the consensus of opinion was very surprising.

The historians who joined the conversation placed the blame squarely on clothing. During the middle ages social mobility was very limited. Each class and occupation had it’s own fairly tightly proscribed mode of dress, even to the extent that certain groups could not legally wear certain materials. Sumptuary laws prevented labourers, artisans, merchants, and even the lower nobility, from wearing silk, velvet, satin or silver. Cloth of gold and purple silk were reserved to the royal family. With one’s status so clearly marked by one’s apparel a simple change of costume could effectively put a person beyond notice in one direction or the other. In many situations it was considered poor etiquette to talk to, or even look at, someone who was more than one class above or below your own. So if your sibling travelled over the sea, made their fortune and returned, it might not be that you couldn’t recognise their face but that, on seeing their new posh duds, you would not even look upon their face until they had placed their proof of identity before your dutifully averted eyes.

Whilst this does justify the necessity of presenting tokens of proof in a great many stories, it still seems to me to come up short of giving an acceptable solution for why The Duke of Charmshire is happy to accept an entirely different woman as his hearts desire based only on her ability to put on a slipper. Was the concept of physical tokens of identity so ingrained in the society that we can understand his willingness to override the evidence of his own senses or is Cinders’ husband the most gormless man in all of fiction? 

Well, if the shoe fits…

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