THE HISTORY OF THE HERO:
THE CHANEL BALLET FLAT
This dance-inspired shoe has never been more en pointe; we explore the 66-year evolution of Chanel’s iconic ballerina
This article was originally published on harpersbazaar.com
It’s time to reach into the recesses of your wardrobe and reacquaint yourself with the early aughts’ trend that was (with the exception of podiatrists, perhaps) loved by many. The ballet flat is back – not that it really ever went away – and we couldn’t be happier. Especially if the shoe in question bears a CC-stitched toe cap. Yes, we’re talking about the crème de la crème of ballet flats: the Chanel ballerina.
The Chanel ballet flat as we know it now didn’t come to fruition until the 1980s, but the foundations were laid much, much earlier – in 1957, to be precise. That was when Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel unveiled the two-tone, heeled slingback that was to become an icon of the house, along with the little black dress and quilted bag. Legend has it that the designer dreamt up the idea after seeing the two-tone shoes worn by staff on the yacht of her friend, the Duke of Westminster.
The pump was made in collaboration with legendary shoemaker, Massaro, who had long created two-tone shoes for men, and featured a beige upper and black, almond-shaped toe. It is said that Coco Chanel was a little self-conscious about the size of her feet, and that the design was intended to elongate the leg and make the foot look smaller.
Over the years, Chanel’s pump would be reimagined in various colourways and materials, in tweed and satin, with a patent or mirrored leather toe. A little bow was added and removed and added again; the heel was squared off and then tapered; for a time, the slingback was replaced with a closed back. Depending on the guise – and even in original beige and black – it was appropriate for both casual daytime jaunts and dressed-up cocktail parties.
‘With four pairs of shoes, I can travel the world,’ said the designer, alluding to the versatility of this chic slingback (which, incidentally, was reprised in a version most close to its original likeness in 2015).
It would be Karl Lagerfeld who would most dramatically reinterpret his predecessor’s creation when, 27 years later, he transformed it into the flat ballet slipper we know today. Crafted from soft, beige leather with a black toe cap, the ballerina was officially inducted into the Chanel hall of fame in Spring/Summer 1984, and immortalised in a Helmut Newton-photographed ad campaign, featuring Inès de la Fressange. The shoe’s suppleness and styling resembled footwear traditionally worn by ballet dancers – an homage by Lagerfeld to Coco Chanel, who had passed away 13 years earlier and had been a fervent fan of Paris’ Ballet Russes.
The ballet flat as a fashion shoe wasn’t a new concept. In the 1940s, due to the shortage of leather during WWII, American designer Claire McCardell commissioned ballet shoe manufacturer Capezio to make rubber-soled ballet slippers to match the pieces in her collection. Then, as is often the case with our History of the Hero subjects, Hollywood stars further popularised the trend – specifically Brigitte Bardot, who wore a pair of Repetto flats (the Cendrillon, which the ballet shoe maker designed for the star) in the 1956 film, And God Created Woman and Cinderella in Paris, and Audrey Hepburn, who donned ballet flats in Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. By the 1980s, however, the shoe had lost its shine – that was, until Karl Lagerfeld revived it.
Today, as we find ourselves in the chokehold of a 2000s style renaissance, it should be no surprise that the ballet flat is sauntering back into our wardrobes. Then, we did like Alexa Chung and Kate Moss and styled it with baby tees and mini dungaree dresses, or skinny jeans and band T-shirts.
Now, despite the resurgence of indie sleaze, the styling has shifted. For a start, bare ankles are out and puddle-hem jeans are in; for inspiration, look to Camille Charrière and Leia Sfez, who wear their Chanel flats (in classic black leather or glitter-coated) peeking out from beneath low-slung, extra-long jeans. Pernille Teisbaek has a sizeable collection, to which she has recently added two pairs, in quilted denim and silver-and-black respectively; she wears them with baggy jeans, with socks and without. Adwoa Aboah’s Chanel flats are black and patent-tipped, and she’s teamed them with everything from simple white denim to an exaggerated, Pepto Bismol-pink, Molly Goddard dress.
You could go matchy-matchy like Marianne Theodorsen, who teamed a milkshake-pink pair with a coordinating bag (both Chanel, of course), or mix it up completely; see Emili Sindlev, whose camo-print cargo pant, Miu Miu logo-print jumper and pale-pink Chanel flat combo shouldn’t work, but it just does. This isn’t ‘balletcore’ (for which Miu Miu’s satin, elastic-strap flats are better suited); it’s eclectic, effortless-seeming, a little ‘00s-tinged but not overtly so.
A new pair of Chanel flats will cost you between £770 and £910 (that’s nearly 70% more than they were in the 2000s), while preloved options start at around £300, so choose carefully. You can’t go wrong with a two-tone or all-neutral pair, but the more magpie-worthy styles (this season’s matte glitter and rainbow-flecked tweed, for example) are also surprisingly versatile. Echoing Coco Chanel’s four-shoe mantra, Chanel says, ‘The ballet flat goes perfectly with every style and is there for every moment of a woman’s life.’ We say, why stop at four pairs?