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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Christmas Pantomime: Shoes



For most of us Christmas would not be complete without a visit to a festive pantomime. The history of pantomime goes back many hundreds of years to harlequin in the Italian commedia dell'arte who wore tiny black pumps.



In the 18th century Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Louis XVI, both wore lavishly, decorated shoes. The former was a champion of the red heel and the latter a devotee to white shoes. This was the beginning of the well heeled and shoes became an important accessory, synonymous with status and class. By the 19th century, fancy dress balls became a national pastime among the privileged classes. These were frequently lampooned by the less well off, especially in the American Southern States, where slave held cake walk competitions.



Traditional Christmas pantos involve fairy stories which almost always include a role for shoes in their plot e.g. Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk & Puss in Boots. The fascination for footwear reflects the importance of their role in our civilisation and in particular a means to poke fun at the upper classes (well heeled).



The glory of pantomime is the principle boy who is always played by a woman. By the 1870's the costumes of the principle boy were almost a uniform of trunks, tights and saucy laced boots. This sexy look was deliberate and made Lydia Thompson, one of pantomime's earliest principle boys, an absolute sensation when she toured the US. The boost her presence brought to the boot trade was recognised when boot blacks, in Chicago gave her a silver presentation wreath in gratitude.



In Britain, the panto dame character became a fixture after Joseph Grimaldi made his first appearance. It was a continuation of en travesti portrayal of female characters by male actors in drag. They are often played either in an extremely camp style, or else by men acting 'butch' in women's clothing. They wear big make up and big hair, have exaggerated physical features, and perform in a melodramatic style.



Characters include: Widow Twankey in "Aladdin", Mother Goose in "Mother Goose", the Nanny or Nurse in "Babes in the Woods" and "Sleeping Beauty", the cook in "Dick Whittington" and "Rapunzel", and the Queen in "Puss in Boots". The dame is usually the title character's mother like in "Jack and the Beanstalk", "Treasure Island" and "Robinson Crusoe". In productions of "Cinderella", the two Ugly Sisters are often both portrayed by dames.



Pantomime principle boy shoes are generally glamorous with the men in female parts shod in as clumsy footwear as possible. This is invariably an elaborate parody of working class boots which wore heavy and badly made shoes. Patched and with soles coming adrift they were meant to make Widow Twankee (a close relative of Charlie's Aunt and Old Mother Hubbard) look coarse. These characters have a heart of gold for all that.



The Ugly Sisters were always dressed in pase fashion pushed to ludicrously eccentric limits. Glamour was parodied as tattiness and probably reflected the chauvinistic attitude which prevailed in the last century. Fashion was superficial and the prerogative of effeminates and the female gender. Shoes as well as costume were particularly designed to make the sister's attempt at sophistication, look grotesque. Cinderella would seem by comparison feminine, vulnerable and very attractive to the audience.



Chorus girls in pantomime moved from the corps de ballet in the 19th century to a prominent part of the sub plot and this has led to the development of exotic footwear. Silk and satin, covered with artificial pearls, rubies and emeralds were used for Victorian chorus girl’s sandals but modern line ups are more likely to be in the standard high kicker's high heeled court with as many decorative additions as designers can get away with.



As with ballet, shoes take such a beating they may need constant repair and renewal. This plus the cost of the lavish costumes and scenery has always made pantomimes extremely expensive productions which may account for why today we see less and less live performances. The demise of live theatre has brought with it the loss of slap stick comedy (or slosh routine) which of course was very much part of the pantomime.



So for the electronic generation, pantomime is an avenue of pleasure sadly lost to them through no fault of their own but just because it is no longer is vogue.



Reviewed 7/12/2016

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