Why Shoes Are the Most Important Bride (And Groom!) Accessory

Plus Some Sole-Crushing Old Time Shoe Traditions

Updated 10/11/19

Photo by Sargeant Creative

In Catalyst Wedding editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.

Picking out shoes for your wedding is a big deal. I don’t even know why exactly it’s such a big deal, but it is, and dare I say this is one of the few wedding truths that applies to both brides and grooms. I wore a short dress, in part because my shoes were, like, the coolest part of my outfit. The only downfall was that I chose style over comfort and, as a result, probably had the gait of an injured flamingo walking down the aisle. Each and every step toward the sacred altar was accompanied by a beautiful mental soundtrack: “Ow. Ow. Ow.” I could only hope our guests would think I was crying from immense joy rather than the fact that my pinkie toes were slowly being whittled down to nothing. I later learned that my husband’s experience wasn’t all that different in his new wing-tipped shoes.

I have to laugh at the irony that I chose to wear a debilitating, mobility-limiting shoe at my feminist wedding. After all, only the patriarchy could have declared this foot prison stylish for women, right? “The high heeled shoe might be one of the only designs that is physically painful and yet somehow persists,” Avery Trufelman says on an episode of 99% Invisible that explains the history of the high heel. Journalist Audie Cornish admits that while she wears heels every day, “It is impossible to find a shoe that is a high heel that’s really gorgeous and fundamentally comfortable.”

Interestingly, it was men who first wore heels to ride horses, and women then adopted the style. Later, heels fell out of fashion, but it was erotica that reintroduced the heel as sexy footwear for women. Once the fashion industry caught on, it was over. Working women would soon be wearing this uncomfortable style during their 8-hour workdays, and brides were doomed to have their heels repeatedly sink into the grass during family photos, making them tilt ever so slightly like skyscrapers built on sand.

What makes my beautiful heels even more hilarious to me is that wedding shoes apparently symbolize some old-timey values: “Shoes have long been tokens of ownership and possession,” writes wedding historian Susan Waggoner. “It became customary for a father to give one of his daughter’s shoes to the groom, an acknowledgment that the bargain had been fulfilled.” In Anglo-Saxon times the groom was known to symbolically strike the heel of his new wife’s shoe “to announce his new status over her.”

I wish the custom had been that when men took their wives’ shoes, they had to wear them for the remainder of the party; the joke’s on you, Alfred! This particularly creepy meaning diminished over time, but shoes were still incorporated in various ways. Sometimes guests would throw shoes at a couple for good luck, and I guess eventually people were like, "Wow this is a bad idea," so they started tying shoes to car bumpers instead. You know what? Why don’t we all just keep our own damn shoes on our own damn feet; how’s that for a new wedding tradition?

I’ve observed that women have taken the meaning of shoes into their own hands. Pinterest tells me it is popular to write a sweet message on the bottom of your shoe, like “Mrs. Jones, est. June 15, 2018,” and if you are kneeling at a church wedding, you might just flash that message to all of your guests. Why not play a light-hearted joke on your guests and write something like “Please help me, I don’t know what I’m doing”? Ah well, I guess that is inferred during the “‘til death do us part” part.

But in all seriousness, talking to women about their wedding shoes showed me just how much the shoe says about the woman. Wedding stylist Leah of New York says, “Shoes were an important part of my day because they were another way for my personality and style to come through.” Leah wore three different pairs of shoes at her wedding: “For the ceremony, I had a ridiculous pair of 6-inch purple suede and glitter heels from Brian Atwood. I then changed into a more sensible pair of 4-inch lavender patent leather Kate Spade heels for dinner and our first dance. And then it was a pair of purple chucks for the rest of the night.” Her guests loved this: “Everyone said they were all ‘very me,’ and that was the point.”

Hannah of Ohio also wore a pair of Chuck Taylors: “They do not make a bridal pair for women, though, so I took matters into my own hands and made them. I used extra lace from when my gown was hemmed. It was such a fun process.” Jen of Chicago also had a creative hand in her wedding shoes: “I ended up wearing my mom’s wedding shoes! They were ivory, but I dyed them purple.”

Other women are like, to hell with shoes! Grace of Ohio says, “I couldn’t have cared less!! I wore my Nikes because to me comfort is key and my dress covered them anyway!” Now that is a real feminist. If she changed her mind last minute, she could sprint away and no one would ever catch her! Jen of West Virginia sent me a photo of her and her bridesmaids all holding up their dresses to reveal brightly colored socks. Hers have Winnie the Pooh on them. “This shows how much I cared about shoes,” she laughs. And finally, Krista of Washington, D.C. is the real rebel: “I hate shoes and always have...so I went barefoot.” You know what, Krista? At my next wedding, I’m going barefoot, too.

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