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.
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.
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.
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.
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…