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Language: Cinderella’s glass slipper: Was it a slip?

Everybody loves a good Cinderella story, right? I pointedly say a Cinderella story because, in fact, there are hundreds of variations on the Cinderella theme that have sprung from cultures around the globe stretching back over the centuries. Walt Disney’s Cinderella is merely the version most well known to present-day American audiences.

It seems a Cinderellaesque folk tale has existed in written form in China since 850 A.D. And probably a century earlier in Egypt, although that story of a girl named Rhodopis was apparently more of a stub, as Wikipedia would call it, than a well-developed plot.

Interestingly, the prominence of a lady’s slipper in the Chinese story can possibly be traced to a south coast of China custom of a hand-sewn shoe being a sort of love token given by a young girl to her intended one. The slippers are referred to as golden in the Chinese tale. In subsequent tellings of the tale around the world, the slippers are made of a myriad of other materials: some are silver, some bedecked with jewels or pearls, some are silk.

So from what source did Disney’s version borrow the idea of glass slippers? It had to be from Charles Perrault, who in 1697 published a French version of Cinderella called Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre (Cinderella, or the little glass slipper). This is the first known mention of a glass slipper in the long history of the Cinderella fairy tale.

The question is: Did Perrault intend to write about a glass slipper or did he slip? That is, did he intend to write verre, the French word for glass? Or did he intend to write vair, a French word for … well, for vair. (I was surprised to find that vair is a perfectly good, if little used, English word.) In either language, vair refers to a type of rare squirrel fur used in the Middle Ages in clothing worn by royalty and high nobility. The backside of the squirrel’s fur was gray colored, the underside white. The two colors of fur were often alternated and sewn into a coat or cape as lining. (Vair comes from the Latin varius, meaning varied.) But if vair was sometimes used as a material for slippers, I’ve been unable to find a specific historical reference to verify this.

The point is that verre and vair are exact homonyms in French, or homophones if you prefer. So some people contend that Perrault meant to write slippers of fur, but either didn’t know the correct spelling of vair (since even in his day the word was no longer common), or he did know the spelling but didn’t catch the misspelling presumably made by an incompetent transcriptionist (perish the thought!) before his story went to press.

Other folks argue that the idea of glass slippers could simply have been a fairy tale-like innovation on Perrault’s part and even consider them to have been a stroke of genius, given the storied place the glass slippers occupy today in the public imagination. As far as I can tell, it was Honoré de Balzac, a 19th century French writer, who first raised the issue of a mistranscription; and he did so in 1841, approximately a century and a half after Cendrillon was first published.

My comment is that it’s a slippery slope to try to divine an author’s intention — in other words, to read his mind. We simply have no text of Perrault’s story where fur slippers appear, only glass ones. And to me, glass slippers have way more pizzazz than fur ever could. Who would wear fur slippers with a fancy, jeweled ball gown anyway? Squirrel mukluks? I don’t think so. For my money, glass is a shoe-in (groan).

Long story short, we will probably never know for certain whether Perrault intended to tell a tale of a glass slipper or a fur slipper. Unless an early illustrated edition of his story can be found clearly showing what the darned slippers were made of, we’ll probably have to live with uncertainty. Actually there is an illustration featuring Cinderella’s shoe, which apparently accompanied the original text in the first listed website below; however, it’s impossible to tell what the shoe is made of. Oddly, I found no mention anywhere else of this illustration.

But on my next visit to Paris, I plan to scour the rare book sections of bookshops as well as the famous bookstalls along the Seine. I may not find the key to unlock the mystery of the glass slipper, but who cares. The fun is in the chase, n’est-ce pas?