Louboutin’s Emancipated Breast

Christian Louboutin is known for the same impossible stiletto heels as Jimmy Choo, but with an added attraction: a strip of carmine-red leather, sewn to cover the underside of each shoe. As a woman walks (or totters) off in those 5-inch heels, she leaves a flash-trail: an infinitude of sexual invitation. Or, as my uncles say, “It’s like a lady baboon’s red arse. Seeing red as she walks away means she’s sexually mature and ready.” (Indeed, some in the hip-hop mogul community call Louboutins “Red Bottoms”.)

And so far, that’s all I had to beware of when I strumpeted around in my only pair of Louboutins: that I was sending ‘lady baboon’ signals (also that I’d permanently damage my ankles, back, feet, and feminism). But for Louboutin’s Fall 2011 ‘Lookbook’, he teamed up with photographer Peter Lippman to re-envision a hodgepodge of Rennaisance-y/Restoration-y portraits that recreate paintings. Each ‘look’ showcases a specific portrait, but also the fall collection; there’s sumptuous costumery, heavy symbolism, heaving fruit, the hint of spilling bosoms, and well-placed products: sky-high heels.

There’s Georges de la Tour’s “Magdalene and the Flame”: instead of Magdalene’s intensity and longing, intensified by the presence of the flame, in this arrangement, the flame is reduced to a secondary player – it is the extraordinary boot that gets her smouldering stare. Francisco De Zurbaran’s demure “Saint Dorothy” gazes not heavenward, but at a platter topped with a purple shoe. Even James McNeil Whistler’s “Grey and Black: The Artist’s Mother” (popularly known as “Whistler’s Mother”) is given the glamour of a feather-topped bootie.

But wait! Black people are represented in Louboutin’s spread, too!

It’s a take on Marie-Guilleme Benoit’s “Portrait d’une Negresse” (illustration above), where (you guessed it) a seated young, black woman poses for the painter, an exposed breast slipping out of Grecian folds of cloth. People like to argue that because this portrait was painted six years after slavery was abolished, and because the painter is a woman, it is an iconic image of emancipation: for black people as well as for women. We’re supposed to see “The Negresse” as an embodiment of steely determination and femininity (one would have to steel oneself, if one was asked to pose in a compromised manner by a white painter, a handful of years after the legal end of slavery). And the fact that the painting was acquired by Louis XVIII ‘for France’ in 1818 may tell you something interesting, too.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t need to expose a boob in order to celebrate my emancipation form forced labour. Looks more like Benoit’s exploring and exploiting a well-known trope: desire and revulsion projected onto the Dark Other.

Black Hamlets and White Othellos are now passé, so Alex Wek could have posed in any of these other ‘looks’. Of all the possible paintings that the artistic director of Louboutin’s Fall Lookbook could have picked, one in which a black model could pose, why pick the one with the liberated breast?



Neelika Jayawardane

Sharp-tongued literature professor. Senior editor at Africa is a Country.

  1. I would have loved to see Louboutin try to place his shoes (aka foot contraptions) in Gustav Courbet's l'origine du monde. Now, that would have been something. It's kind of scary to see that men are still in charge of women's fashion. Or maybe Louboutin and Choo adorn the shoes they design. Privately. At their separate dachas in the Caucasus.

  2. You said “I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t need to expose a boob in order to celebrate my emancipation form forced labour.” – It looks like you never heard of Marianne and Delacroix’s painting of Marianne leading the people… This image has been in most used/produced French notes (100 franc notes) for years; so yes, exposing boob (and even two boobs) can be a symbol and a celebration of emancipation. See this – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/80/Hundred_franc_note_delacroix_1993.jpg/800px-Hundred_franc_note_delacroix_1993.jpg

    So I disagree with your remark comment regarding Marie-Guilleme Benoit’s “Portrait d’une Negresse”. You lived in the US, right ?? Then take note that in France, breasts are not considered nudity (not like puritan Americans who prefer replace flesh with guns). In US culture, both “genitals or post-pubescent female breast are considered nudity”… So I think your background and culture plays a lot in your article

    Now let’s me go the choo :)

  3. I do now live in the US, but grew up in different parts of the world where a variety of body parts could be exposed – no news to me that breasts do not have to be taboo, as long as one does not make them so. But in each culture, including that of France, certain body parts are accepted for exposure within certain circumstances, and of course, what is considered nudity/taboo is gendered, class-related, etc. Note that in the 100 franc note, it is the woman who is ‘bared’, while the male figures remain tightly trussed up! The French are not so free, my dear.

    In the US, people find ways to get around any remainders of Puritanical views on body and shame – as do people in any culture where there are restrictions. I wish you taught my university courses – plenty of exposure in the front row!

    1. Hey Neelika

      Ouh !! I am speaking to an university teacher, ouch !!! So you are presumably right :)
      I was taught at school Marianne is breast free because she is the mother of the nation, just like the wolf who fed Remus and Romulus… May be you are right, Marianne was just exploited like most women in these days.

      What’s your opinion about Aliaa ElMahdy’s photos then ?

      1. Hey hey, no schooling from me – I’m just enjoying the dialogue with you! Yes, I’ve heard that Remus and Romulus story, lol. (That says something about mothers, too, no?)
        In any culture where women are covered up as part and parcel of repression and control, self-directed exposure can serve as a strategy (esp. after seeing images of women who are forcibly bared in public by state police – as a means of shaming/threatening them to remain in seclusion). It’s like ElMahdy was giving the finger or something. What do you think?

        Here’s ElMahdy’s reasoning for her famous photograph (on CNN, so…it’s not that well written) :http://articles.cnn.com/2011-11-19/middleeast/world_meast_nude-blogger-aliaa-magda-elmahdy_1_egyptian-blogger-nude-photo-kareem-amer?_s=PM:MIDDLEEAST

        1. Neelika

          “The photo is an expression of my being and I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that.” – Well, then may be the Negresse was thinking exactly the same !! May be she was interested in art and enjoying the end of slavery and Liberty, Egality, Fraternity movement… you don’t know, that’s why your assumption regarding the original painting may be wrong… Perso, I think you can “expose a boob in order to celebrate emancipation form forced labour” and Marianne and La Négresse are good example :)

          The thinking behind guy who asked ElMahdy to retweet and share her photo is may be similar to the painter who painted Marianne et La Negresse ?

          Now, about Louboutin, no comment !! It’s fashion and marketing !

          Regarding the breast taboo, I wrote something about it after realising that breasts were removed with photoshop by a fashion designer in Kenya to please US customers and while writing the article I went through documents about censorship in media and only in US the word breast is used ! And the same day, Pussycat dolls were in French prime time and had the chance to discover that naked breasts are allowed on French TV… The same week the Larry Clark was on front page of Liberation… Sorry, it’s Google translated also – http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=fr&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.peperuka.com%2F2010%2F10%2F29%2Fscalpez-moi-ce-sein-avec-photoshop%2F

          By the way, I heard about your blog in BBC… I wrote an article about “Africa being a country in movie Madagascar . Sorry for the poor English, it’s Google translated – http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=fr&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&layout=2&eotf=1&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.peperuka.com%2F2008%2F12%2F04%2Fle-kenya-a-l%25E2%2580%2599honneur-2-madagascar-escape-2-africa-ou-plutot-escape-2-kenya%2F

          Don’t you have better than CNN :) Really ??

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