There’s a Spanish movie from 1974 called La mujer con botas rojas, which translates as “The Woman in Red Boots.” Catherine Deneuve plays the woman in question, who wears her pants tucked into a quite unremarkable pair of red leather knee-length boots for pretty much the whole film. It was directed by Juan Luis Buñuel, who is the son of the much more famous Luis Buñuel, with whom Deneuve made the much more famous Belle de Jour (1967) and Tristana (1970). In it, Deneuve plays an avante garde writer who gets manipulated by an elderly millionaire; however, the tables are turned when it emerges that she can summon up apparitions and recall visions of the past. I cribbed that plot summary from IMDB because, despite having watched the movie once on late night TV, I can remember absolutely nothing about it.
This post is not about that film, or those boots.
Around the time Deneuve was conjuring her apparitions in La mujer con botas rojas, David Gilmour, guitarist (and co-vocalist) for seventies rock giants Pink Floyd, received a demo tape from a friend, Ricky Hopper. Hopper was also friends with a family from Welling, in southeast London, whose teenage daughter was a musical prodigy who played the violin, organ, and piano and composed her own songs. Fifty of these youthful compositions were crammed onto the tape, which must have been a daunting prospect for any listener. But Gilmour was impressed by what he heard and forked out his own cash to pay for professionally-recorded demos of three of the songs. On the strength of these, sixteen year-old Catherine Bush, better known as Kate, was signed by EMI.
I am, I will freely admit, a huge Kate Bush fan, although to be honest I much prefer her first three albums – The Kick Inside (1978), Lionheart (1979), and Never Forever (1980) – which represent the unleashing of a huge burst of creative energy that had built up during the two years of her contract, when she was placed on a retainer by EMI and paid an advance that enabled her to take classes in mime and interpretive dance. The reasons for the company’s largesse are a matter of debate, ranging from altruism (EMI wanted to protect the youthful Bush from the potential trauma of releasing an album early to poor reviews), to cold-eyed commercial calculus (they wanted to lock her down before she had a chance to sign with another record label), to incompetence (the initial producers hired to work with her were no good).
Regardless of the reason, EMI’s caution in bringing Bush to the attention of the public paid big dividends. By the time she began recording her first album, in the late summer of 1977, she had written over 200 songs and honed her live skills by performing with her backing band in South London pubs. More especially, she had worked to combine music, song, and dance into the unique style of performance art that was to make her such a distinctive star of the late seventies and early eighties. By the end of 1977, Kate Bush was ready to meet her public. Which she did, in a very impressive pair of red boots.
The middle years of the 1970s had seen a shift away from more tailored clothes towards what Vogue called “the new ease in fashion;” oversized sweaters; loose-fitting, pleated skirts; wool, tweed, and peasant headscarves. Boots were a big part of this look; in contrast to the zippered, calf-hugging styles popular at the time, the new boot was loose-fitting, touching the leg rather than clinging to it, and falling in extravagant folds as the soft leather crushed around the ankle. Rather than having heels that were covered in the same material as the boot itself, the new boot featured stacked heels in material like wood. By 1975, the New York Times was referring to this style as “The Boot of the Year.”
Flash forward to when the young Kate Bush was fronting her band at the Rose of Lee in Lewisham and the boot was reigning supreme. “It’s lucky that shoemakers are almost all bootmakers too,” Barbara Griggs reported from the 1977 Paris Fall collections. “Otherwise they’d be grimly facing bankruptcy.” Griggs estimated that around 90 percent of the models on the Paris catwalks that season were wearing boots of some sort. “Ankle-high boots, calf-high boots, knee-high boots, and thigh-high boots. Boots that laced-up and boots you simply slid into. Boots made of soft sheepskin, shiny calf or dressy satin. Boots that invariably had low heels for daytime.” The variety of boots seen in Paris was, in Griggs’ words, “staggering.”
Most notably, 1977 saw the re-emergence of the over-the-knee boot after a six-year gap. Reporters covering that year’s Fall ready-to-wear shows in Paris were full of praise for Karl Lagerfeld’s collection for Chloe. Lagerfeld had been much taken with Federico Fellini’s Casanova released in December of the previous year and decided to produce a collection based on the eighteenth century costumes seen in the movie. But rather than women’s clothing from that period (which he declared to be “uninteresting”) Lagerfeld chose instead to design a collection for women that was influenced by the flamboyant male clothing of the period. So we have broad-brimmed cavalier hats, capes, velvet and satin breeches, lace trimmed blouses, and lots of swaggering over-the-knee boots.
The look caught on. By May of 1977, Bernadine Morris was reporting in the New York Times that a growing number of retailers on 7th Avenue were featuring knee-baring dresses for fall, also noting that high boots, thick tights, should be used to offset increased leg exposure. By the time the glossies started covering the fall fashions, in their July editions, over-the-knee boots were high on the list of accessories. In its review of shoes for the 1977 fall season, Vogue hailed “a great-looking new over-the-knee boot to bear with a tunic top and textured legs… or a thick Shaker sweater and matching leggings. Or to pull on over the narrowest narrowed pants and cuff down (boots are that soft this year!) sometimes to show its cozy shearling lining.”
A thick sweater and shearling-lined over-the knee boots. In early 1978 Kate Bush went on a round of promotional interviews for The Kick Inside wearing just such an outfit, or variations on it. In March, the NME carried a profile of the new star, describing her as “neither doll-like, nor petite, though hardly tall. Her faded jeans are mostly concealed under a pair of sheepskin-lined, thigh-high, reddish suede boots, and are in marked contrast to her very feminine fringed top.” Here I have to take issue with the NME’s Steve Clarke, because those boots are most definitely not suede, but leather. I know this because Bush was possibly at the height of her fame (or at least its first peak), with the first single from the album, Wuthering Heights, at number 1 on the UK charts, and she was photographed everywhere in those boots. Sometimes with a sweater, sometimes the fringed top, and occasionally a silk chinoiserie blouse. But always the boots.
They were quite sturdy boots, made from heavy leather with a chunky heel and thick soles, more buccaneer than boutique, and quite the contrast with the image portrayed by Bush through her music, which tended towards floaty dresses, dance leotards, and unearthly vocals. The contrast was mirrored in Bush herself. I still remember being shocked when I first saw her interviewed on the TV. I’d imagined that the owner of that ethereal singing voice would speak in delicate tones of Received Pronunciation, but Bush’s accent was pure South London.
It was hard to escape from Wuthering Heights in 1978; those piercing vocals seemed to be everywhere. It spent four weeks at number 1 on the UK pop charts and ended up being one of the most played records on the radio that year (as well as the tenth best selling single*). My brother had recently moved to North Yorkshire and my memories of that time involve a lot of driving around wet moorland of the sort that had inspired Emily Brontë’s Gothic masterpiece, which had, in turn, inspired Bush. Wuthering Heights was an ever-present accompaniment on the car radio.
Interestingly – at least from the narrow perspective of this blog – March of 1977 saw a chart showdown between the red booted Bush and her black booted rival for seventies pop superstardom, Debbie Harry of Blondie. Blondie’s single Denis was kept off the top spot of the UK charts by Bush (and then suffered the ignominy of being leapfrogged by Brian & Michael’s Matchstalk Men & Matchstalk Cats & Dogs; Google it to see just how bad that one was), although the American act was to have by far the greatest number of hits overall. Kate Bush continued (and continues) to plow her own idiosyncratic course, with variable mass success but a passionate fan base. In 1993, she released an album entitled The Red Shoes, but since 1978 the red boots have, sadly, been consigned to the back of the pop closet.
* If 10th place seems a little underwhelming, bear in mind that this was the year of two Grease-powered John Travolta & Olivia Newton John hits, to say nothing of ABBA and the Bee Gees, so it was not a bad effort for a first single. Although she did get beaten by the Boomtown Rats as well.
- Anon. Shoe Signals. Vogue, July 1977: pp.98-103
- Anon. Walk Right In…. All the Terrific New Stockings & Socks, Shoes & Boots”, Vogue, July 1977: pp142–143
- Clarke, Steve. Kate Bush City Limits. New Musical Express, March 25, 1978.
- The Daily Mail, March 31, 1977: pg. 15
- Griggs, Barbara. Bootnote… Down to Earth Detail. The Daily Mail, March 31, 1977: pg. 15
- Morris, Bernadine. At Lagerfeld’s Paris show, the 18th Century goes modern. New York Times, March 29, 1977: pg.41.
- Morris, Bernadine. Message is in From Paris – Bubbly, Bloused and Billowy. New York Times, April 5, 1977; pg.24