Nobody Wins in the Age-Old Debate Over High Heels
Do They Convey Authority? Oppression? Frivolity? Confidence? Sex? Yes.
In the 1977 edition of The Woman’s Dress for Success Book by John T. Molloy (“America’s best-known clothing consultant tells what to wear and why!”), the introduction is titled “The Mistakes Women Make and How to Correct Them.” What follows is 187 pages of advice on how to use clothes (don’t dress sexy, never wear trousers, always wear high-heeled pumps to the office) to get male colleagues and clients to take you seriously. Then, as is often still the case now, few thoughts that the workplace itself might need to change, but rather that female workers must be reconfigured in order to fit into it. On the back cover there is a photo of a young woman in business attire, not smiling, with an older man standing behind her—the author himself—his hands just about to touch her shoulders.
For better or worse, the high heel is now womankind’s most public footwear. It is a shoe for events, display, performance, authority, and urbanity. We have endowed it with the power to transform, and ours is a culture obsessed with female transformation. In some settings and on some occasions, usually the most formal, it is even required. High heels are something like neckties for women, in that it can be harder to look both formal and femme without them. Women have been compelled by their employers to wear high-heeled shoes in order to attend work and work-related functions across the career spectrum, from waitresses in Las Vegas to accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers; in places from airline cabins at 30,000 feet to seaside at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s a shoe for when we’re on, for ambition; for magazine covers, red carpets, award shows, boardrooms, courtrooms, parliament buildings, and debate lecterns.
Rather paradoxically—or maybe not—according to the 150-year-old fetish industry, it has also consistently been viewed as a shoe for sex. For women, what is the most public is also the most private, and vice versa.Along with being our most public shoe, it is also considered the most feminine.
Along with being our most public shoe, it is also considered the most feminine. Few styles in the long history of footwear have been so exclusively marked as female as the contemporary stiletto high heel, comparable in this way only to the lotus shoes designed for the bound feet of Imperial China. Of these two styles, the high heel is the only one still worn today. Minus the punctuated dot of the heel itself, both leave a similar tiny, triangular footprint.
To be feminine is not the same thing as being female. Femininity is a thing that is felt and seen, but also escaped and denied, or cultivated and proved. For trans women, non-binary or intersex individuals, and the gender fluid, high heels can sometimes play an especially important role in the expression of an inner feminine longing or recognition, particularly when access to femininity or femaleness has been previously questioned or denied, regardless of, or in concert with, the sex they were assigned at birth. Or not. Either way, high heels strike a powerful chord in the complex music of modern gender identity, with a far-reaching resonance.
High heels or their predecessors have been denounced, then defended, and then denounced again, denigrated and made quasi-mandatory by the same cultures, both at the same time. No matter how you dress as a woman, turn one way in the maze and you’re rewarded, turn another and you’re ambushed, or trapped. It is hard not to despair when one follows this rhetoric to its logical conclusion, which is that “sensible” shoes are unfeminine, and “feminine” shoes are not sensible, therefore to be feminine is to be without sense. We are having the same conversations about female footwear again and again, spread out over thousands of years, because the arguments are not really about fashion or culture, or even about shoes. They are political and have to do with women’s role in public life.
When a woman attempts to assume the mantle of ultimate authority, the question of what kind of shoes she should wear can get especially complicated. During the 2016 American presidential debates, the first female nominee of a major party, Hillary Clinton, wore a pair of shoes that were no doubt the result of extreme deliberation. Flats would have been unacceptably informal for such an occasion, and so she wore heels. And yet notably high heels would have come across as too sexy and hence unserious, both for her position and her age, and so her heels were very low. They were so low, in fact, that a blocky or sturdy heel would have made them almost indistinguishable from the heels on a pair of men’s dress shoes, and so to communicate her femininity, the heels were also very thin. These very low, very thin heels have a name: kitten heels. These shoes were in fact the correct, perhaps even the only acceptable shoe fashion choice for Clinton in these circumstances and in that moment, to show that she was at once feminine, serious, and fashionable. Being fashionable, particularly for women, is seen as a kind of social intelligence. Yet only a female candidate would find that the most acceptable sartorial choice for a presidential debate would have the word kitten in it.
Among feminists and non-feminists alike, there is no party line on high heels. As of this writing, a new high heel “controversy” seems to spring up every few months. High heels will have been banned somewhere, or required somewhere else, or some notable person will have worn them somewhere deemed inappropriate. Op-eds circulate, the Twitterati chimes in. One group will decry them as oppressive, patriarchal, or elitist, while another defends them or the person wearing them in the name of celebrating femininity, expressing culture, and safeguarding choice. (Choice—that word again). It seems that no matter what we choose, some valuable thing is lost. Choosing one meant losing all the rest. So, are high heels good? Are they bad? What do they mean? Are they feminist or anti-feminist? Do they communicate authority? Independence? Oppression? Professionalism? Confidence? Frivolity? Subservience? Sex? No one group can seem to agree.
If you ask me, the answer to all of those questions is, yes.Shoes themselves have a curious power over the imagination, long understood as stand-ins for the body and the societal self.
. . . But don’t those things hurt your feet?!
Yes, high heels cause pain, and not just when you fall down in them. The good ones hurt only after you’ve walked in them for a fair bit, while the bad ones hurt at first contact. They chafe the skin and punish the skeleton. It is an unavoidable fact that when worn frequently, over time, they can do permanent and painful damage to the body. And, for some, high heels, and very high stiletto heels especially, have come to be associated with a certain kind of plastic, man-made woman; with Barbie feet and Ivanka Trump’s brand of privileged, faux-feminist “girl power”; with the kind of Pink Empowerment that’s on sale at the drug store and only costs 20 percent more than the same product in blue packaging over in the men’s aisle.
However, outside of this hyper-artificial realm of marketing and advertising copy, there is something deeper going on. High heels possess a complicated appeal. There is something of the animal in them, of the talon and the claw. (And of course, the French word for high heels is les talons). I am reminded of the shoe forms that appear in the gorgeous and haunting work of Dominican-American artist Firelei Baez, where, in painting after painting, the long, spiked heels seem to grow directly out of the feet themselves. Her figures, voluptuous and uncontainable, balloon and sprout and effloresce into shapes that are more wilderness than woman, oozing color, covered in tropical leaves, feathers, hair, and flowers. Instead of deciding which of Plath’s anxious and tantalizing figs to choose, it is as if Baez’s women have themselves become the whole tree, the whole sentient green orchard. During a significant period of her work, nearly all of her figures where feet are shown have at least one foot with a deadly heel attached, like a narrow horn, a sharpened tooth, or a stake driven into something; their feet are flexed and pointed, ready to pounce, to balance, or to dance.
Shoes themselves have a curious power over the imagination, long understood as stand-ins for the body and the societal self. As children, we learn through fairy tales that shoes are magical objects that can help or hinder, reward or wound, liberate or imprison. They can turn a cat into a prime minister and a serving girl into a queen. Freud described the foot as an age-old sexual symbol that occurs even in ancient mythology, and said the shoe functioned as a metaphor for the vagina. While one might do better to question which things did not represent the sex organs according to dear old Sigmund, this reading lends a startling cast to the classic fairy tales—to the piercing foot pain felt by the little mermaid when she steps into the world of men, or the young girl whose red shoes won’t let her stop dancing even after she no longer consents, to what Cinderella may have really lost to the prince at the ball.
As the summer gave way to autumn in Paris, the wave of tourists subsided, and the streets were dominated by Parisians once more. The leaves on the horse chestnut trees turned a dusty gold-green, then mottled brown, and then drifted down one by one to the chalky ground of the manicured parks. The neon café signs seemed to come on earlier and earlier. Whatever fear or hope I may have harbored that summer that high heels had become passé was quickly banished, as the City of Light dressed up for the new season. There they were: red and velvet, or velvet-gold, or leathery green; black, brown, gray, purple, floral, paisley, white. There were spike heels and kitten heels, heels on sandals and heels on ankle boots. They were worn with dresses, slacks, skirts, shorts, jumpsuits, West African wax print ensembles, abayas, and jeans. And of course, there were flats, and oxfords, and sneakers; there were loafers and canvas slip-ons and boots and moccasins. But amidst it all, the high heel remains.
The story of a person’s shoes is the story of her function in society, and our footprints are the marks we leave, where we’ve been and the direction we’re going. Here, then, is the story of the most modern of women’s shoes: shoes that are mythic and real, that are worn through or unblemished, that hurt or excite, that hobble or feel like flying; that are made of ice, or glass, or crystal; that we steal; that are stolen; that bleed or bear the evidence of our bleeding. Pain, pleasure, dreams, desire, status, blood: these are the refrains in the songs of women, as we strut, hobble, dance and walk through this man-made labyrinth we call the world.
From Object Lessons: High Heel. Used with permission of Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © 2019 by Summer Brennan.