When a big chunk of your working life is spent immersed in the historical disciplines, occasionally you notice a collective blind spot in the culture of the present. Take, for example, the almost universally abused term aristocratic. A visitor from Mars might presume, based on current usage, that things aristocratic—everything from norms of behavior all the way down to particular quirks of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fashion such as scarlet heels—reflect nothing more particular than ostentation deriving from wealth. Indeed these days the term is often thrown around without regard to the more nuanced concept of high rank absolutely and exclusively defined by noble birth. A thrilling exception to this trend is the article by Meredith Blake about the present Countess of Carnarvon and Highclere Castle in today’s Paris Review Daily. The problem is actually an old one, and is brought forward in the article on aristocracy, n., in the Oxford English Dictionary, where the Greek etymology is telling: αριστος best + -κρατία rule, in other words “the government of a state by its best citizens.” The gradual drift from this ancient notion to “that form of government in which the chief power lies in the hands of those who are most distinguished by birth or fortune” is, in a sense, the history of Europe in the past two and a half millennia boiled down to a single sentence, and indeed its last three words form something of a précis of one of the the central tensions of the Age of Revolution. The O.E.D. goes on to define aristocracy more narrowly as “the class to which such a ruling body belongs, a patrician order; the collective body of those who form a privileged class with regard to the government of their country; the nobles. The term is popularly extended to include all those who by birth or fortune occupy a position distinctly above the rest of the community.” True, a little space is then reserved for “fig. …those who are superior in other respects,” and this appears to be the conceptual basket into which many drafters of labels and wall texts (among other writers) now choose to put most if not all their eggs, and that basket is more often than not labeled money. Yet prior to the last century money was not at all the same thing as fortune, which was far more likely to mean land, for centuries the reserve currency of aristocracy. So it goes.
As I mentioned some years ago, the truly aristocratic credentials of the scarlet heel seem to have congealed around the court of Louis XIV and his eighteenth-century successors; the specimen above belonged to Louis XVI in the splendid coronation portrait at Waddeston. It (the scarlet heel) therefore became a rather convenient target in the revolutionary years. For example, as its title suggests, the pamphlet Le Portefeuille d’un talon rouge; contenant des anecdotes galantes et secrètes de la cour de France (Paris: Impr. du comte de Paradès, l’an 178* [daté “de Versailles le 18 juin 1779,” but “envoyé au pilon sur l’ordre de Lenoir le 19 mai 1783”]) attacks the wallet, i.e. wealth, of the “red-heel,” meaning aristocrat, and thus provided a convenient pretext for a surprisingly vicious attack upon Queen Marie-Antoinette herself. Yet the scarlet heel has a far longer, more complicated, and even foggy history, morphing thence into the greyer areas of middling rank, social mobility, and decidedly non-aristocratic wealth. Various anecdotes about the origins of the habit swirl unhelpfully around the blogosphere, though the general suggestion that red or scarlet heels at different times denoted the claims of wealth, sometimes but not always distinct from the privileges of noble birth, is, I think, undeniably true. Now thanks to Christian Louboutin, we have scarlet soles, which though certainly plutocratic is most definitely not aristocratic. One need only glance at who ends up wearing them.