Tracing Fashion’s Obsession with Mules

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“Mules, I’m sure, I will never wear,” Carine once said to a writer in 2011. “I hate the noise when someone walks with mules. Clomp, clomp, clomp…it’s very not chic. I don’t think I’ve used mules one time in a story.” Yet, despite our editor’s vocal dislike for the style that shares its name with the hybrid donkey-slash-horse, mules have, in fact, been in—and sometimes out—of vogue for centuries. Throughout the ages the style has gone through many iterations (more on that later), but the story goes that it originally appeared as mulleus calceus in ancient Rome. Back then, a mulleus was defined as a red or purple shoe worn to signify the importance of high magistrates in court.

In the 1600s, the style captured the imagination of wealthy housewives in France. They wore mules in the bedroom, and the shoe looked more similar to how we know it today—always backless, typically with a high heel and a closed toe. Thanks to a daring socialite, mules clomped their way from the boudoir to the street just before 1700: Legend has it that Comtesse d’Olonne slipped on a risqué red pair underneath a long skirt to attend church.

Controversy breeds contagion, and the trend soon reached the Palace of Versailles, where Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, and Queen Marie Antoinette readily adopted it. At differing dates, the extravagant duo commissioned their personal shoemakers to design custom mules dripping with taffeta ruffles and ornate jewel, pearl, and lace trimmings. Centuries later, in Sofia Coppola’s film of the infamous royal’s life, the best scene is—arguably—the one with the mules. In it Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, shops her sorrows away in various pastel pairs by Manolo Blahnik, while sipping on champagne and nibbling macaroons.

The style’s widespread popularity in France is best illustrated in paintings from the Rococo era. The most famous one being Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 1767 work, “The Swing,” which follows the flight of a soft pink mule from its female owner’s delicate foot into a rose bush and—the viewer assumes—the arms of her entranced suitor. Later in art, modernist painter Édouard Manet caused outrage at the Musee d’Orsay when he unveiled a portrait of a prostitute called “Olympia.” The year was 1865, and the subject was fully nude bar a dainty pair of mules in an attractive shade of buttermilk.

With the 20th century, the style enjoyed a fresh resurgence with the advent of the pinup. Iconic Golden Age actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Joan Fontaine, and Jayne Russell clicked around in satin and perspex pairs festooned with marabou feathers both on and off screen. In 1955’s classic rom-com, The Seven Year Itch, Monroe tumbles from a piano stool wearing a double-strapped white pair while playing “Chopsticks.” Fashion magazines at the time lauded the alluring slip-on and slip-off again capabilities of the mule, and German-American style photographer Horst P. Horst was fond of it, too.

By the ‘80s, the style was stained with love-it-or-hate-it nostalgia. Some, like Mr. Blahnik, remember championing it: “In the eighties, I did nothing but mules,” he recalled in an interview. While others, like Karl Lagerfeld, met the word with characteristic humor. “When I was young,“ he said, „my mother always said to me that I was stupid. She called me ‘Mule.’” Support for it continued to wane through to the next decade, when mules were reborn with an ultramodern, minimalist aesthetic. They came in two categories: boxy and black for the grunge girls or barley-there and strappy for the Carrie Bradshaw devotees.

But that didn’t last long. Mules were out again come the millennium, when the style became shorthand for a flash trash crowd with a “bad-good” aesthetic. In the years immediately following, designers across the board attempted to restore the style to its former glory, but nothing stuck with any meaningful longevity until Alessandro Michele was appointed creative director at Gucci. His debut collection for Fall/Winter 2015 contained what can only be dubbed as the “Holy Grail” of mules. You probably know it—it’s that flat and backless loafer-ish mule, with a gleaming horsebit that’s spawned countless imitations.

Mules have proven to be a major hit time and time again with designers ever since, and each brand has its own take. At Prada, for example, you’ll find mules with a sharp pointed toe and Mary Jane strap, while at Sies Marjan, the mule is a tri-hybrid mix or horse-slash-donkey-slash-sneaker. Forever chic, The Row makes a low-heeled style with a polished moire bow called the Coco every season. Balenciaga favors an elongated, witchy toe, and Christian Dior has more than a few to choose from. There are many more examples, too, of course, but it’s suffice to say that without the humble mule, the history of fashion (and its feet) would look a whole lot different.

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