As a kid in suburban Ohio, I grew up thinking that high heels represented adult sophistication and feminine glamour. Against my mother’s wishes, I was wearing them to school by early 2000’s. Similarly to Cher in “Clueless,” I would totter the corridors between periods in platform wedges and lace-up heels. At that point, I was experimenting with turtle necks and studded skirts—so I can’t really speak to exactly who I was trying to impress or why these were my chosen fashion statements, as much as I knew I wanted feel a little more grown-up.
Whether it is two inches or five, every woman[i] has a right to a kick ass pair of heels (though to be clear, this is not me condoning kitten heels). Most people question it—you’re elongating the leg and pinching toes, but for what? Do all women have such a unique relationship with their shoes, and why?
The skyscraper heel is an addictive, paradoxical combination of confidence, pain, and beauty. With the fetishized foot, a bold silhouette, the phallic shadow of a stiletto spike—it makes for an exquisite kind of torture. Regardless, such a seemingly commonplace object is imbued with contradictions in historical and sexual contexts, ironically inhibiting movement in order to increase it, at least in appearance. They affect how the body moves, “titillating the watcher and creating a sensual experience for the wearer”[ii].
Beginning in Grecian times, women and men alike donned the first high heel korthonos for theatrical purposes. Created by Aeschylus, his intent was to elevate actors in his plays to different heights to “indicat[e] varying social status or importance of characters”[iii] Even then, being taller meant something. Greek women adopted the trend, taking the wedge heel to new heights that would have left even the late Alexander McQueen envious.
The popularity of heels dropped after the 19th century, as twentieth-century women “demanded more comfortable, flat-soled shoes—that is until the roaring twenties when higher hemlines encouraged visible, elaborate, high, slender Louis heels”[iv]. With runway designers re-imagining the body shape and artistic possibilities of the high feel, we see a trend emerge where designers are using “innovative or unexpected materials [and] techniques; push[ing] the limits of functionality, wearability, and even conventional beauty, through surprising structure, shape, or height”[v]. The exhibit Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at Victoria and Albert Museum explores the global extremes and trends of shoe-wear until January 2016.
In an industry driven by pure superficiality, sex sells. We know this and allow consumers to take advantage of it. However, it’s worth considering why this may be, and that this desire to alter one’s appearance isn’t solely a by-product of current fashion or celebrity trends. The cultural and transformative capacity of heels goes far beyond just dramatic shapes and silhouettes, but alludes to how our society’s notions of how gender, class, and sexuality intersect.
For more shots of the shoe evolution, go straight to the source: Klaus Carl’s Shoes.
[i] Or man, for that matter—power to anyone trying to rock ‘em!