A young woman smiles in delight as her elderly husband pushes her swing, flying through the trees in her dress of pink silk that rustles in the breeze. Her husband can’t see, but his young wife, resplendent in pink, is looking elsewhere. She’s looking to her handsome lover, hiding amongst the plants, who reaches out to her. The best way to delight her lover, without being seen? She allows her shoe, that beautiful pink high-heeled mule, to fly off of her foot, soaring in the direction of lover. The bare sole of her foot is tantalising and enticing, made all the more so by the shoe that could not help but fall off.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (or Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, c.1767-8) is one of the most iconic scenes of eighteenth-century French art, perhaps perfectly encapsulating both the rococo and fashion all in one fell swoop.
I say fashion, because ever since the first time I saw an image of The Swing painting (my best friend had a poster of it that hung proudly in our living room when we lived together), and then saw it in its full glory at the Wallace Collection in London, I’ve been slightly obsessed by that woman in the pink dress wearing the pink mules.
In some ways, by the mules most of all.
I love shoes. I love history (if that was not made incredibly obvious by this blog). I’m increasingly realising that I choose lots of my footwear (and to be honest, a lot of my clothes and accessories) because they make me think of shoes from history, of a particular piece of art or period, or a place.
I’m not a fashion historian, but I love fashion and where the inspiration for design comes from. And with the arrival of 2022, I promised myself I’d write more in depth about the little bits of things from history, or historical research and interpretation of the past, that inspire me. So, this is the first in a series of reasonably self-indulgent posts about historical fashion and, particularly for this inaugural post, where my love of shoes manifests most.
I couldn’t help but lust after a pair of Fragonard-style shoes, the kind of shoes that would make my feet feel a little like they could wander through eighteenth-century Versailles.
This dream wasn’t exactly helped by the fact that when I first saw the Fragonard Swing, it was enhanced by an installation of Manolo Blahnik shoes surrounding it. This display, overall to show Blahnik’s sources of inspiration from the Wallace Collection, but in the case of the Fragonard painting, showed the shoes Blahnik designed for the Sofia Coppola 2006 film Marie Antoinette.
Of course, you can see elaborate pink mules aplenty.
I’ve ended up with two pairs of mules in my wardrobe that could fit the bill – all undeniably budget (I think I’d need to rob a bank before I could own Manolo Blahniks), and all because of a love of the feel of this painting, and the world of eighteenth-century Versailles.
The opulent fabrics and luxury of the Blahnik shoe designs and of the mules in The Swing, and other contemporary paintings such as François Boucher’s Madame de Pompadour, were coveted widely by the rich from the earliest years of the eighteenth century.
They were a statement of riches and of course a marker of social status, and were thus designed to be seen: when a woman would sit down and their skirts would move, when they walked or when they danced, an elegant peek of supreme taste.
Silhouettes became more dramatic as the century progressed, and, by the middle of the eighteenth century, France was leading European fashion in terms of shoe design.
The pompadour heel, named in honour of Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the famous mistress of King Louis XV, became a fixture. They were daintier, more sensual, and were of course harder to walk in, but so beautiful to look at.
Velvet mules had begun as being worn in the boudoir, but soon became more openly worn at salons and for dancing. They were favoured by Madame de Pompadour, and were closely associated with sexuality because of the ease of which they could slip on and off, which signified decadent behaviour and loose morals.
This was of course why Fragonard chose to show the lady in The Swing painting kicking off her mule – it is the perfect innuendo to show everything that this particular type of shoe symbolised.
The decadence of these shoes, and how fun they are, are something I love about them. Neither of my pairs have a pompadour heel – and are a lot easier to walk in than their eighteenth-century predecessors – but I like how the bows, patterns and colours have a lovely historical nod in them.
I’m sure Madame de Pompadour would baulk at the idea of me wearing mine with jeans (so far away on the horizon in terms of fashion history at the point she was commanding attention at Versailles), but I would hope that she would maybe approve of my biggest homage to the rococo glamour of The Swing…
The little mule dangles, almost as if it could soar away from my ear!
So from top to toe, I’m a walking talking eighteenth century France reference…