Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shoe-History Repeats Itself: Venetian Courtesans, Lady Gaga, & the High Price of Walking (Very) Tall

Thursday, November 11, 2010
Susan reporting:

Yes, we know the old adage about nothing new under sun.  Even in the wonderfully transitory world of fashion, where the definition of "new" changes by the moment, there have to be some do-overs.

Which brings us back in time to the Italian Renaissance, and to the famous courtesans of Venice. In the 16th c., they epitomized hotness for the rest of Europe. They had their own special style, too, including the most outrageous platform shoes imaginable, some rising as high as twenty inches. (The most fashionable Venetian ladies wore these shoes as well, as did Spanish ladies, but it's the courtesans who wore the most extreme versions, and who were satirized the most.)

These tall shoes were called chopines, and like all trendy shoes, they were as much about their exclusive expense as they were about style; only the wealthiest women, whether of good reputation or not, could afford chopines. (We've written more about them here before, and with more pictures.) The 16th.c. artist of the illustration, left, has thoughtfully done a cutaway view of this courtesan's skirt, so we can see her sauntering seductively on her chopines. The reality, below right, was probably much less jaunty, let alone graceful. Part of the allure of such high shoes came from being able to afford the necessary servants who walked on either side to make sure their mistress didn't fall.

Which brings us forward in time to the present, and to singer, artist, and fashion-setter Lady Gaga. Among her many talents, Gaga has demonstrated a rare gift for walking and even dancing in extremely tall shoes. While there have been some well-documented tumbles (oh, lucky 16th c. courtesans, not having to deal with paparazzi!), on the whole she's been remarkably well-balanced – even if she, too, often has attendants/body guards/spotters on either side to help stave off disaster.

Lady G. could also relate to the handmade chopines that flaunted the Venetian sumptuary laws: her favorite pair by designer Noritaka Tatehana have a price tag of $6500. Here's an entertaining link that shows Gaga and her towering footwear, as well as a video of more mortal women attempting to walk, literally, in her shoes.

We have to think those Renaissance courtesans would have been green with shoe-envy....

Interested in learning more about chopines, as well as zoccoli and pantoufles? Thanks to the glory of Google, we found this amazing site by Francis Classe, a gentleman who has clearly made Renaissance footwear his vocation. Great photos, and there are even directions for whipping up a pair of chopines for yourself. Check it out!

Above left: Venetian Courtesan by Pietro Bertelli, 1589
Above right: Venetian chopines, unknown maker, 16th c., Museo Correr di Veneziani 


Monica Burns said...

1) Lady Gaga's shoes are ridiculous. Wonder how bad they are for her feet. I'm all for making a mark w/your own style but SERIOUSLY? Sometimes I think she's over the top (I love her music)

2) Those antiques look like they were HORRIBLE things to wear, and that one phallic symbol is SOOOO appropriate for a courtesan! LOL Great post!

Deb said...

I seem to remember that Hamlet tells one of the actors (obviously a boy who played female roles) that he has grown by the height of a chopine since Hamlet had last saw him. I suppose sometimes even men had to get in on the act!

Lady Burgley said...

Deb, you're quite right. In Shakespeare's time, boys who were playing the women's roles often wore chopines to make themselves taller and appear to be mature women. Shuffling about a small stage on stilts, however, is not striding through an airport, as Lady Gaga appears to do. Don't know how (or why) she does it.

Heather Carroll said...

The visual of a prostitute literally standing out (or up!) from a crowd due to her chopines always puts such a comical picture in my head. I wonder if there were abnormally tall fine young ladies who repeatedly got confused for courtesans.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I don't have any answers as to the WHY of Lady Gaga-- Just reporting the facts! *g*

Still, this link (thank you Chris Woodyard) tries to explain the scientific reasoning behind high heels:

Deb and Lady B., I hadn't realized that chopines had their place on the Shakespearean stage. Interesting!

Heather, being a tallish woman myself, I wondered about that, too.
Some older historical costume sources label chopines as belonging only to courtesans, but newer research has determined that chopines were more a sign of a big bank account rather than anything else. But apparently there was some confusion between the good girls and the bad - if everyone is dressed fabulously, how can a hapless Venetian nobleman know for sure? *g*

nightsmusic said...

I love high heels. I think we've had a conversation before about how there's nothing in the world better than the perfect pair of red heels. Total power shoes!

I do notice though that all of these designs are actually flat. They're on stilts, yes, but the actual sole of the shoe itself is quite flat and not the 4" heel design we see now. Clumsy, but probably not as bad on your back provided you don't end up on it! ;)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I agree, Theo -- the 15th c. shoes are more tall shoes than high heels, which does make them pretty clunk to modern eyes looking for a hot stiletto (esp in red!) Then there are those strange Gaga shoes that have the arch for a high heel, but no heel at all....

Heather Carroll said...

Looks like they're trying to bring chopines back

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