First up, I should admit that I am rubbish at wearing heels, despite being on the shorter side of average height. In my youth, as now, I never desired to teeter or totter. Back then, the shoe of choice was the Doc Marten, or maybe a converse sneaker for the summer months. It makes me smile to see young girls in denim shorts, opaque black tights and Docs: almost the exact uniform that my friends and I wore back in the late 80’s. Some things have not changed at all and some completely.
These days, Saturday night high streets all over the land are full of girls and women wearing massively high heeled shoes with huge platforms; straps and buckles, studs and spikes. The grannies of our day would no doubt have described them as hooker shoes. On spindly young legs, they look dangerous and ungainly and on women with chunkier legs, they are no more flattering. I always imagine that after a night on the piss, they must be the cause of a few trips to A&E. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, I despair at such bad footwear choices in the young; knowing that they will case bad backs, bunions and other ailments. I always remember the mother of a school friend who was short, and had worn heels since her teens. She literally could not walk in flat shoes anymore, her feet were so fucked.
In the last ten years or so, the uber high heel has become a major object of desire, and those with nothing more than a few feathers or straps keeping the feet in, even more so. These types of shoes are impossible to walk in without scrunching your toes to stop your feet sliding out. No doubt Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo make flat shoes, but these are not the ones fetishized in Sex and the City, and coveted by so many women alongside £500 plus handbags.
I read a great article the other day in the New York Times, with the wonderful title Shoes That Put Women in Their Place. It was an opinion piece, following on from the story that some guests had been turned away from a screening at the Cannes Film Festival last week, for failing to comply with the red carpet dress code. Despite the fact that they would probably have been wearing gowns that covered their feet, it seems it simply isn’t done to turn up to an event unless shod in heels.
The writer of the article is the curator of a shoe museum, and traces the history of the heels within a wider cultural and political framework, from their introduction to Europe at the turn of the 17th century, when both men and women of wealth and power (and the wanabees) wore heels. As men became less disenfranchised, they dispensed with these impractical items, leaving painful shoe wearing to the ladies. They became a symbol of female frivolity and eroticism.
Leaving the footwear of the poor aside, since then, women have had to fight most of their battles in uncomfortable clothes and shoes – Suffragettes campaigned in heels, corsets and full length bustle skirts. There was a brief wane in the appeal of the heel in the 1960’s, when equality and freedom were the buzzwords of the day, but they resurfaced in the disco era and never went away.
Once women started to break into the world of corporate power in the 1980’s, high heels were worn both as a symbol of power and to reassure and remind men that even though we were coming for their jobs, we were still just women after all. Yet they were completely impractical footwear. Remember that opening to the film Working Girl, where all the women of New York commuted in their trainers, slipping into something more uncomfortable once they arrived at the office? We knew it then and we know it now.
As more and more women break the glass ceiling, this idea has become more and more prevalent. We rarely see a women in a serious position of power wearing flat or low heeled shoes, even if they would be a damn sight more comfortable for all the long hours they put in. Perhaps they feel the need to physically raise themselves up amongst the men. Or indeed tower above them where possible.
This article particularly resonated with me because the day before, I had been to the exhibition of the designer Alexander McQueen at the V&A museum in London. While I am no fashion guru, I do like a look see at the pictures in Vogue when I am not feeling too inadequate and I love clothes and what they can do for a person. It was stunning. While some of the clothes were wild, bizarre and almost unwearable for anyone but stick women who don’t ever need to sit down (like much high fashion), they were also beautifully made and quite inspiring.
The shoes were another story. Some of them were objects of beauty that were fun to admire in a gallery setting, but to imagine they could ever be worn in a real woman’s life was impossible. There are those that do of course, but not to walk anywhere, or carry shopping, or children. Running for a bus would definitely be out. Standing might be okay, but only for a short time. Going back to the eroticism theme, some are definitely designed for sex or the initiation of it, but you might get tired of ripping your silk sheets on a regular basis, so even for that they have limited appeal.
Yet most of us buy into this high heel thing to an extent. Not to do so even a little bit, is seen as sign of ageing: of giving up our sexuality or as a demonstration of alternative thinking, such as extreme feminism. I am old enough to remember the phrase ‘women who wear comfortable shoes’ as a euphemism for being a lesbian. Despite my woes, I own a few pairs of heels, mostly boots, although I rarely wear them for fear of falling over or walking like a duck. I am more of a trainer/Birkenstock/short block heel or wedge type of gal. When I am wearing those shoes, my legs may not look as long as they do in heels but I don’t give a fuck. My legs are not long. And it means I can run, lift and walk for miles.
There are times when it feels like only heels will do, such as to a wedding or a dress-up occasion, and that can be fun. But they restrict your enjoyment, hence the pile of high heeled shoes at a wedding when the dancing really gets started. It seems like an assault on our freedom to insist that high heels be worn in the 21st century. And the more that women get out to claim their rightful place in the world, the more it feels like an attempt to keep us in our sexy, useless and pointless place.
There’s a popular quote by Marilyn Monroe: ‘give a girl the right kind of shoes and she can conquer the world.’ This alludes to ‘killer’ heels. My thinking is this: give a woman a comfortable pair of shoes, or bare feet and she would already have conquered it.
Until next time,