Red Hot Papa
Popes have long concealed plain red shoes under their cassocks. But Benedict XVI has raised his hemlines to reveal stylin' lipstick-red Prada loafers.
By Mary Beth Crain
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,” to talk of many things
The ships and sealing wax can wait. So can the cabbages and kings. It is definitely time, however, to talk about shoes. And the pope.
I never, ever, ever in my life thought I’d be writing an article in defense of Pope Benedict XVI. Reactionary old farts and I just don’t seem to get along, after all. But after reading the most recent headlines, I feel a new fondness for him. I mean, how can you hate a pope who’s got the gumption not only to wear red Prada loafers but to raise his hemline in order to flaunt them to the world?
It’s about time!
Frankly, I think the shoes are adorable. In fact, I have a pair remarkably like them myself. They’re not Prada, mind you—I believe I got them at Macy’s for $69—but they are hot, and wearing them makes me feel cool, one of those inexplicable chemical/biological phenomena only possible in the fashion world.
Of course, red has long been an important color in the papal wardrobe, and Benedict XVI is not the first pope to wear red shoes. But he may be the first true clothes horse to serve as Pontiff, demonstrating an unabashed preference for flashy designer labels, from Cartier Santos reading glasses to expensive Serengeti sunglasses which, the London Times noted, are also “the preferred brand of the Hollywood star Val Kilmer.”
Hans Christian Andersen would not approve. In the 1840s, the whacked-out Danish moralist wrote a cautionary children’s tale, “The Red Shoes,” about a little girl named Karen, who coveted a fancy pair of red shoes that had been made for a princess. In a world of literal black and white that equated color with loose morals, this was a vain, sinful desire, but Karen managed to get the shoes in a sneaky way and, defying propriety, wore them to church for her Communion. Because her mind was on her shiny new shoes and not on God, Karen’s punishment was severe. She was forced to dance, and dance, and dance, forever without stopping, until her feet were raw and bleeding. And still she had to dance. One day, while dancing through the countryside, she came across an executioner and begged him to chop off her feet with his axe. Taking pity on the poor child, the executioner gave in to her request. To his amazement, the irrepressible red shoes danced away with the feet in them. The executioner then made Karen a pair of wooden feet. Stripped of all her evil vanity, the wicked little sinner was finally able to concentrate on God. She became a penitent and spent the rest of her days in humble prayer.
The classic 1948 movie The Red Shoes is a tragic fantasy based on the Andersen story. A young ballerina is torn between the Svengali-like impresario who gave her her big break, and the young composer of the ballet The Red Shoes, in which she is starring. Eventually her life assumes the tragedy of the story she’s enacting, and she pretty much dances herself to death, metaphorically speaking.
I don’t know if Pope Benedict ever had that lovely, upbeat story read to him as a kid, or if he ever saw the movie. But if he did, it obviously didn’t scare him enough to keep him in sensible shoes. I’ll bet he saw those gleaming red Pradas in a store window or a catalogue—or maybe he was sitting around one day with nothing to do and Googled “red shoes”—and the rest is history. Vanity won out. Or was it humanity?
Anybody out there remember the old ‘60s pop song, “Do you have some shoes that you really like…some shoes that you feel so groovy in?” Shoes are definitely important. They aren’t just foot protection. They’re an outlet for our creativity. They call to those daring parts of us that we might be just a little bit afraid to express in other ways. They tell the world if we’re feeling sexy or shabby, casual or seriously hip, well-heeled or twinkle-toed, and if we’re high steppers or have our feet planted firmly on the ground. They give us an image, and a chance to change it every day, or every hour if we like.
The problem with being pope is that you’re stuck with one image. And one tailor. Well, screw that! Ears are ablaze and tongues are awagging over the rumor that Benedict has dumped the Vatican robemaker, Annibale Gammarelli, for trendier Raniero Mancinelli. I, for one, understand completely. Gammarelli has been in charge of Vatican couture since 1792. Would you want a 213-year-old tailor? Would anybody except Queen Elizabeth? Mancinelli, on the other hand, is a sensible citizen of the 21st century who understands and blesses the Pontiff’s newfound romance with Dame Fashion. Before we know it, those gaudy, ponderous papal robes may be history, and we might be seeing Benedict in Armani suits, with silk ties and hankies and a rose in the lapel to boot. Arrivederci, Annibale! Hello, Esquire!
So what do the pope’s red shoes tell us about him? Plenty. Red is the color of passion and artistic inspiration. It governs our lower chakras, the seat of our sexuality and our creativity. It is associated with fire—both sexual intensity and anger. As the color associated with Mars, the God of War, red is a big male color, symbolizing power and dominance. The pope’s red shoes tell us that under that good boy, shy intellectual veneer lurks one hot number. Who knew?
And it’s evident that he wants us to know. The pope has also raised eyebrows by raising the hemline of his cassock a few inches, so that everybody can see his new shoes. It reminds me of an entry in that charming little book Children’s Letters to God. This was written by a four-year-old: “Dear God: If you are in Church on Sunday, I will show you my new shoes!” It’s really too cute. I bet Benedict even sleeps in his red shoes, or at least falls asleep clutching them to his breast, bless his little heart.
So I am all for the pope revving up his stompers and donning Gucci shades and baseball caps. Of course, it might be nice to bring his ideas as well as his attire into the 21st century. But one thing at a time, OK?
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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was Confessions of a Madonna/Whore.
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