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?

Further Reading

When is a coup a coup?

Breaking with its habit of tolerating military coups, more recently the African Union has made it a policy to challenge unconstitutional transitions of power. Why not in Zimbabwe?