The Folklore of Shoe-Shaped Confetti

The wedding season is upon us and, in preparation for it, I spent last Saturday shopping for the essentials: a new dress (or three), ‘congratulations’ cards, and gifts that the bride and groom are never going to use (does anyone ever really want candlesticks?). It was as I waded indecisively through the swathes of packets of confetti – paper, metallic, freeze-dried flower petals – that I came across a type I hadn’t seen before: shoe-shaped confetti.

Shoe Confetti

At first I dismissed it as just another commercial gimmick but then I made a connection with the custom of hanging shoes off the back of wedding cars, and I began to wonder whether those stiletto-shaped pieces of shiny pink PVC might actually have some basis in folklore.

Wedding Car

It turns out that the tying of shoes to the back of a wedding car stems from an earlier tradition – that of throwing shoes after the bride and groom. We can see this in a drawing from Christine Hole’s 1940 English Folklore.

Throwing Shoes Wedding Hole 1940

In Fletcher Moss’s 1898 Folk-Lore: Old Customs and Tales of my Neighbours, he writes of how ‘The custom of throwing the shoe after a newly-wedded pair when they leave the bride’s home has a symbolical meaning…[the shoe] is the symbol of authority, and is given to or thrown after the bridegroom when he takes the bride from her home, signifying that he is to have dominion over her’. This links in with the custom of the father-of-the-bride presenting a shoe to the groom, marking the transference of power over the bride.

It also links in with the belief that possessing somebody’s shoe gives you a certain authority over them – magically speaking. In 1644 there was a Scottish witchcraft trial in which the purported sorcerer Patrick Malcolm was accused of trying to acquire a woman’s left shoe in order to control her and force her to follow him.

The feminist in me notes it’s not actually that hard to reconcile those pink stiletto-shaped confetti pieces with female oppression – but the folklorist in me also notes that the shoe isn’t necessarily a symbol of authority. At its most basic level – as a tool that aids the getting from A to B – the shoe symbolises travel. So perhaps the shoe’s association with weddings stems from the fact that weddings are essentially journeys. Traditionally (albeit not so much anymore) for a bride this journey was literal; she leaves her parents’ home and moves into her husband’s. But for both parties it’s intended as a spiritual journey, and perhaps the shoe was meant to represent that.

The shoe also enjoys another level of symbolism that’s probably pertinent to the wedding custom. The shoe is, as has been explored elsewhere on this blog, a symbol of the wearer themselves and, by being worn by them, it becomes imbued with their essence, strength, and life experiences – essence, strength, and experience that can be passed on to somebody else.

Radford and Radford, in their 1948 Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, write of this transference. ‘Until very recently, shoes were often thrown after ships leaving port, or people beginning a journey or a new enterprise, or taking up new work. By doing this, the throwers conveyed luck to ship or individual concerned, probably because they were endowing them with a little of their own life-essence or strength’.

This would explain why this 1854 sketch from Punch magazine shows Queen Victoria throwing a shoe at her soldiers as they depart for the Crimean War. She was imparting them with some of her own luck.

Queen Victoria

Lovett has some interesting things to say about this in his 1925 book Magic in Modern London: ‘The shoes used in the “good old days” were very old and well worn out. Also they must have been worn by old people who had led good and useful lives. The wish at the throwing of these shoes was this: ‘May your path through life be as good and as happy and as long as that of the owner of this shoe.’’

So those pink pieces of shoe-shaped confetti may have actually derived from this belief that shoes possess the luck, essence, and strength of their past wearers – by throwing shoes at the bride and groom, you’re imparting that luck, essence, and strength onto them. It’s the ultimate wedding present.

In fact, come to think of it, I might return the candlesticks and wrap up my old pair of Dr Martens instead…

The Melness Shoe: The afterlife of a museum object

‘A museum, for most objects, is a final resting place – a moment frozen in time for future contemplation’. This statement was penned by heritage specialist Sharon Macdonald back in 2002 and it demonstrates the general consensus about museum objects. Once an object – say, a concealed shoe – is accessioned into a collection, it’s removed from its social and cultural context and becomes fixed in place. But does that mean that it’s no longer able to shift contexts, to change meaning, to influence people, and to be influenced by people? I recently interviewed an artist who has engaged with concealed shoes within museum environments, and her experience has shown me that such shoes are far from ‘frozen in time’.

Joanne B. Kaar is an artist living in Dunnet, not far from the northernmost tip of mainland UK. She’s studied Textiles at universities in Manchester, Aberdeen, and North America, and she’s primarily interested in working with museums, creating pieces of art that are inspired by objects and their stories. In 2012-13 she was an artist in residence at the volunteer-run Strathnaver Museum, and she was on the hunt for an object that would capture her imagination – and that’s when she came across the Melness shoe.

Melness Shoe

It’s an old, well-worn lady’s boot, and it was sitting amongst various miscellaneous objects at Strathnaver Museum when Joanne first came across it. She initially dismissed it as a mundane shoe – “It didn’t look anything special” – but the accompanying label piqued her curiosity. ‘Found inside the walls of a house in Melness and donated to the museum 20 years ago,’ was all it said. Intrigued, Joanne set about finding more information about it, but all the museum knew was that it had been donated in the 1970s and that it had been found built into the wall of a house alongside a dog skin buoy and an empty whiskey bottle. Why these items had been found in the wall of a house was beyond them. So Joanne contacted Northampton Shoe Museum and they identified it as a ‘concealed shoe’, probably hidden in the building to protect it from witches and evil spirits. “It became much more of a fascinating object instead of just this mundane shoe,” she explains. “This story behind it, about where it was found, suddenly made it quite special”.

As I know myself, concealed shoes tend to be quite addictive; once you find out about them, you’re immediately hungry for more information. Joanne was no different. “Because the concealed shoe was hidden in secret and not talked about, it’s quite a difficult thing to research. That made it even more of a challenge.” She wanted to know if other concealed shoes had been discovered in the local area and so she sent out feelers – but her way of ‘research dissemination’ was far more interesting than distributing leaflets or publishing articles.

She made 200 paper shoes (the design for which is free to download here). The outside of the shoe is designed as a stone wall, representing the wall in which the Melness shoe was found, while the inside includes information about the Melness shoe itself and asking people to get in touch if they’d found something similar.

7 30th May 2012 paper shoes opt

1 paper shoe design with making instructions opt

1 30th May 2012 paper shoes opt

But rather than just handing out these 3D “pamphlets” (for want of a better word) on the street, Joanne had a better idea. She concealed them. “I decided not to tell anyone where I was leaving them. I hid them in secret all along the north coast, from Balnakeil right the way to the John o’ Groats ferry.” She hid them in telephone boxes, shops, libraries, galleries, cafes, egg honesty boxes at the end of drives, not knowing if anybody would find them or if they would care.

Well, it turns out that they cared.

Lots of people got in touch. People who’d never been to Strathnaver Museum, or hadn’t been there for years, came to visit. They came to see the shoe and to tell stories of their own finds; numerous other instances of concealed shoes came to light, some of which had been discarded by their finders years ago – some of which had been kept. But the paper shoes did more than encourage people to share their finds; they became finds themselves.

People didn’t just throw them away; they kept them. And they began to be hidden away in places that probably won’t come to light for many years. Joanne’s parents placed one in a bottle, along with a note giving the date, and bricked it up in the wall of their house during renovations. Another few paper shoes went into a box and were hidden within a stone wall nearby.

opt Gavin Clark Invernaver concealing shoes 28th May 2012 7

“Nobody’s ever laughed,” Joanne notes. “Me handing them these paper shoes and people finding them, they all think it’s interesting, nobody’s thought “that’s a stupid idea, why are you bothering with that?” Everyone seems to be fascinated with it…They had their own wee theories why.”

Joanne also worked with a local school, Tongue Primary, where the pupils made their own paper shoes and were told that they could either take them home or conceal them (most chose to conceal them – “I think they used it as an excuse to go into buildings, like ruined crofts, that they wouldn’t usually go into”). They also decorated an empty shoe box, selected a few of the shoes, and sent them to Northampton Shoe Museum, where they were given accession numbers and added to the museum’s collection. A whole new class of ‘concealed shoe’.

1 shoe box Tongue Primary school opt

All of this activity because an artist in residence at a small, local museum just happened to stumble upon an old shoe with a mysterious label – a shoe that certainly hasn’t remained ‘frozen in time’. By finding it, questioning it, and sharing it, Joanne’s project has not only led to the creation of new ‘concealed shoes’ but has “added a wee bit more story” to the Melness shoe itself.