In 1697, Charles Perrault published the story of "Cendrillon: ou la Petite Pantoufle de verre" (Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper). This is probably the most widespread version of Cinderella, thanks in large part to its adaptation by Walt Disney. I often see people on the Internet insist that "the original Cinderella wore gold slippers and had the stepsisters cut off their toes and get their eyes pecked out by birds!" But that was "Aschenputtel," the version from the Brothers Grimm. Perrault published his work 115 years before the Grimms did. It's impossible to identify an "original" version of Cinderella, but at least in terms of publication, the glass slipper came first.
But was it really a glass slipper? There is a persistent theory that the shoes were originally made of fur - which is about as far from glass as you can get!
This theory may have originated with Honore de Balzac, in La Comédie humaine: Sur Catherine de Médicis, published between 1830 and 1842 and finalized in 1846. The word for glass, "verre," sounds the same as "vair" or squirrel fur. This fur was a luxury item which only the upper class was allowed to wear. Therefore, claimed Balzac, Cinderella's slipper was "no doubt" made of fur.
Since then, quite a few authors have relied on this alternate origin for Cinderella's origins, usually in order to fit the story into a more "realistic" mold. It has also produced a persistent legend in the English-speaking world that Perrault used fur slippers and was mistranslated.
Yes, glass shoes raise questions. How did she dance in them? How did she run in them? Wouldn't they have shattered? Wouldn't they have been super noisy? Fur slippers erase those questions entirely.
But Cinderella stories regularly include things like dresses made of sunlight, moonlight and starlight. Forests grow of silver, gold and diamonds. Prisoners are confined atop glass mountains. In Perrault's version alone, mice are transformed into horses and pumpkins into carriages.
Glass slippers should not be an issue.
In fact, they fit perfectly well with the internal logic of the fairytale. As has been pointed out by others, the whole point of the slippers is that only Cinderella can wear them. Fur slippers are soft and yielding. Glass slippers are rigid and you can see clearly whether they fit a certain foot. Moving into symbolism: they are expensive, delicate, unique, magical. Cinderella must be light and delicate, too, in order to dance in them. They are a contradiction in terms (of course it would be impossible for a woman to dance in glass shoes! That's the whole point!) and that's why they have captured so many imaginations.
The fact is that Perrault wrote about "pantoufles de verre," glass slippers. He used those words multiple times. There is no question that he was talking about glass. No one mistranslated Perrault.
However, did he misunderstand an oral tale which mentioned slippers of vair?
It's important to note that "vair" was popular in the Middle Ages. By Perrault's time, this medieval word was long out of use!
It is still possible that Perrault could have heard a version with vair slippers - but is it probable? What stories might Perrault have heard?
In her extensive work on Cinderella, Marian Roalfe Cox found only six versions with glass shoes. She found many that were not described, many that were small or tiny, and many that were silver, silk, covered in jewels or pearls, or embroidered with gold. A Venetian story had diamond shoes, and an Irish tale had blue glass shoes. Cox believed that other versions with glass slippers were based on Perrault's Cendrillon. Paul Delarue, on the other hand, thought these versions were too far away in origin, which would make them independent sources - which means Perrault could have drawn on an older tradition of Cinderella in glass shoes.
Gold shoes are perhaps significant. Ye Xian or Yeh-hsien, a Chinese tale, was first published about 850, and its heroine's shoes are gold. Centuries later, the Grimms' Aschenputtel takes off her heavy wooden clogs to wear slippers “embroidered with silk and silver,” but her final slippers - the ones which identify her - are simply “pure gold.” It’s not clear whether this means gold fabric or solid metal.
As for other early Cinderellas: Madame D'Aulnoy published her story "Finette Cendron" (Cunning Cinders) in 1697, the same year as Perrault's Cendrillon. Her heroine wears red velvet slippers braided with pearls. Realistic enough.
The Pentamerone (1634) has "La Gatta Cenerenterola" (Cat Cinderella). It's not said what the heroine's shoes are made of, but she does ride in a golden coach.
Note that shoes are not always the object that identifies the heroine. In many tales, it's a ring - something likely to be made of gold or studded with gems. What if, at some pivotal point, far back in history, a storyteller combined the tiny shoe and the golden ring into a single object?
On the other hand, I have never found a Cinderella who wears fur slippers to a ball. Fur clothing appears in Cinderella stories such as "All-Kinds-of-Fur," but it's used as a hideous disguise. Rebecca-Anne do Rozario points out that "Finette Cendron" (which, again, came out the same year as Perrault's "Cendrillon") has Finette instruct an ogress to cast off her unfashionable bear-pelts. Fur clothing was not a symbol of wealth or status, but of wildness and ugliness.
Glass slippers were most likely Perrault's own invention dating from when he retold his folktales in literary format. No translation error, no misheard "vair" - just a really good idea and his own storytelling touch. If anything, he probably heard stories where the slippers were made of gold, or where their material was not mentioned.
It was only later writers like Honore de Balzac who added the confusion of the squirrel-fur slippers, and folklorists and linguists have been arguing against it ever since. James Planché wrote in 1858, "I thank the stars that I have not been able to discover any foundation for this alarming report." That was twelve years after Balzac's book was officially completed.
Heidi Anne Heiner at SurLaLune points out that the vair slipper theory dismisses Perrault's "adept literacy," and "negates [his] interest in the fantastic and magical, discounting his brilliant creativity."
Unfortunately, as shown by Alan Dundes, the vair/verre theory made it into influential sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and thus has been fed as fact to successive generations of readers. Who's going to question the Encyclopaedia Britannica? And so this rumor remains persistent.
As a final bit of trivia: there is one mention of glass shoes in the Brothers Grimm's tales. “Okerlo” appeared only in their 1812 manuscript and was quickly removed. (This is perhaps because it is clearly a retelling of a French literary tale, “The Bee and the Orange Tree.” Not unusual for the Grimms, but in this case it may have been just too blatant.) In the final lines, the narrator is asked what they wore to a wedding. They describe ridiculous clothes, with hair made of butter that melts, a dress of cobwebs that tears, and finally: “My slippers were made of glass, and as I stepped on a stone, they broke in two.” Here, the destruction of the fairytale clothing points out how impossible the magical tale is, and signals the end of the story and a return to reality.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.