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Are High Heels Headed for a Tumble?

By Bonnie Wertheim

 
Photo illustration by Sam Cannon
 

One Saturday evening this spring Florie Hutchinson, an arts publicist and a mother of three daughters, was nursing her youngest, Beatrice, at home and texting with a friend in Europe. She was exhausted after a day spent running errands in her hometown, Palo Alto, California, where she’d encountered back-to-back examples of everyday sexism: a children’s book that preached the importance of female politeness and a wall of bjorns and bassinets whose boxes uniformly depicted women caring for infants. So when she typed the word “shoe” into her phone and the red high-heel emoji appeared as a substitute, it felt like a sign.

“It was the first time I noticed and stopped in my virtual tracks and stared at the stiletto heel that auto-populated,” Hutchinson said. “It was the emoji that broke the camel’s back.”

It’s been a year of reckoning for women on many fronts. In January, they led what was likely the largest protest in American history. Their stories of sexual harassment and assault have prompted a purge of powerful men in entertainment, government and media. In growing numbers, they are running for public office.

Some of them are also fighting gender discrimination with their footwear.

Hutchinson, for example, has sent a proposal to the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, recommending that they add a ballet flat, a shoe that reads as female but not seductive or sexualised. (Ninety-two percent of people online use emoji every year; 75 percent of us want more emoji options.) She was particularly concerned about children, whose first forms of communication are pictographic and who are exposed to technology at ever-younger ages.

“My daughters are already being confronted by these gender-stereotypical norms, totally subconsciously,” Hutchinson said, “while all of us are having this very vocal conversation about gender biases.”

There was a time when a pair of pumps was a marker of female adulthood; a crucial component of the Dress for Success wardrobe and a sign of sexual maturity (this is why a surge of high heels in girls’ sizes a few years ago raised some eyebrows).

But our preferences have shifted dramatically toward athletic and comfort shoes in recent years. Allbirds, a brand of merino wool “runners,” are now part of the unofficial Silicon Valley uniform (venture capitalist Mary Meeker is a fan), and the company plans to expand its retail presence after a successful second round of funding. It’s not uncommon to see Danskos and Crocs, mainstays of restaurant kitchens and hospitals, worn by white-collar professionals. Birkenstock’s two-strap Arizonas, once derided as hippie shoes, have been imitated by designer labels like Prada, Céline, Givenchy and Coach. Now Birkenstock holds fashion shows in Paris.

At the avant-garde retail temple Opening Ceremony, which opened in 2002, fanciful sneakers, slippers and oxfords greatly outnumber high heels. Eree Kim was a designer there for four years before forming her own comfort-shoe company, Hopp Studios.

“I always had trouble finding shoes that were comfortable but also aesthetically what I wanted,” Kim said.

She sees shoes as a means of both self-expression and self-defence. “If I know that I have to take the subway home late at night, I want to be dressed appropriately,” she said, adding that during the time she’s lived in New York, she’s been attacked twice.

“Men have no clue that this is something a lot of women think of,” she said.

From Louis XIV to Louboutins

High heels have a long and not always feminized history. They were pioneered by horse owners in 15th-century Persia. Heels helped them stand up and stabilise in stirrups so they could shoot their bows with greater accuracy.

Because of their connection to sport and wealth, heels went on to become a signifier of social class in Western Europe. During the Renaissance, heels and platforms could give men a competitive advantage among their shorter peers, as well as elevate them from the streets, where people poured out their chamber pots. Courtesans soon adopted them as a status symbol, wearing extra-high chopines, or platforms, to tower above other court members in a symbolic show of sexual dominance.

Women throughout the European courts began to adopt high heels in the 16th century. Catherine de Medici wore heels to her wedding in 1533. Queen Elizabeth I favoured them over other footwear.

By the late 17th century, it wasn’t uncommon to see men in four-inch heels. Long before Cardi B received her first pair of Louboutins, Louis XIV wore five-inch red heels and decreed that the early “red bottoms” would be worn only by members of the royal court.

In the 18th century, flatter shoes became the preferred style. Heels re-emerged as a trend at the end of the 19th century for women only. The first American high-heel factory opened in 1888, and this “antiquated fashion,” responsible for many podiatric and orthopaedic ailments, surged.

As Prohibition and temperance reform swept the United States in the 1920s, high heels became a topic of legislation. A Utah bill proposed that heels higher than 1 1/2 inches would be met with, at a minimum, a $25 to $500 fine, and possibly jail time up to one year.

Though they’re no longer punished by law for their footwear choices, women in the public eye are still defined by whether they do or don’t wear heels — certainly any woman walking alone on the street, but first ladies as well. A 1959 article in this newspaper proclaimed that “Pat Nixon’s political trademark around the world might well be her high heels.” Ahead of a trip to the Soviet Union with her husband, then vice president, a friend suggested that Pat Nixon pack a pair of “sensible walking shoes.” Her response? “I’ve worn high heels in a lot rougher places.”

Doug MillsMelania Trump was mocked on social media for boarding Air Force One in stilettos on her way to survey hurricane damage in Texas. (She switched to sneakers before exiting the plane.)
Melania Trump was mocked on social media for boarding Air Force One in stilettos on her way to survey hurricane damage in Texas. (She switched to sneakers before exiting the plane.)

So too might have been the response of Melania Trump, who earlier this year was mocked on social media for boarding Air Force One in stilettos on her way to survey Hurricane Harvey’s damage in Texas.

While she goes high, others in her position have often gone low with their heels. Michelle Obama was both praised and pilloried for her sensible shoes. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis also favoured less-precarious footwear: square-toe flats, riding boots and kitten heels.

The first lady made her taste very clear in a letter to Marita O’Connor, a personal shopper for Bergdorf Goodman, who had sent her a selection for the Inaugural Ball: “Your shoes arrived today and I am sorry to say that I do not really like any of them. They have that vamp which I do not like.”

Still, for many women, “that vamp” is just what they seek. This year’s breakout hip-hop star, Cardi B, has become synonymous with the Louboutins she raps about in “Bodak Yellow.”

In an interview with Billboard, the rapper’s stylist Kollin Carter explained the appeal of the red-soled stilettos to women like Cardi B: “Where she’s from, when girls are ready to get dressed up that’s what you wear. And in real life, before ‘Bodak’ blew up, she wore red bottoms because that’s what it means to make it in the Bronx. It’s a status symbol that the masses can relate to; everyday girls work hard and save up their money to have that shoe.”

Worn to Run

Louboutins and other high-end heels signify wealth and can lend confidence to the women who can afford them. They are also “a way to literally try to make your body look more like the cultural body ideal,” said Renee Engeln, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and the author of the book “Beauty Sick.” “They’re to lengthen your legs and change the way your shape looks from behind. That’s not accidental.”

That’s what Christian Louboutin meant when he told The New Yorker, “The core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men.”

Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, says that heels are here to stay. “High heels are the number-one sartorial symbol of erotic femininity, and that’s not changing anytime soon,” she said.

But Steele agreed that periods of heightened anxiety can affect the shoes women wear — our preferences change with history. In 2000, The New York Times wrote that heels were in demand “as never before.” By the end of the following year, Steele said, flats and sneakers had become ubiquitous in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. And a year after that, the kitten heel crept back, as it periodically does.

“The one hard-and-fast rule in fashion is that if it swings in one direction, it will swing back in the other direction,” Steele said.

The cohort of high-profile high-heel naysayers is vocal today. Gal Gadot wore flats throughout her “Wonder Woman” press tour earlier this year. Serena Williams paired her Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen wedding gown with custom bedazzled Nikes. And ahead of Cannes in May, Kristen Stewart spoke out against the film festival’s no-flats rule, installed in 2015. “If you’re not asking guys to wear heels and a dress,” she told the Hollywood Reporter, “then you cannot ask me either.” (She wore heels. But still!)

Last year, in The New Yorker, writer Mary Karr called for the uninvention of high heels. It seems more likely that they will be reinvented. Two companies led by women have developed ergonomic high heels whose insoles are designed to promote stability and even weight distribution, and prevent heel-related hospital visits (provoking, for those of a certain age, amused memories of the Easy Spirit “Looks Like a Pump, Feels Like a Sneaker” commercial, echoed in a 2014 McDonald’s commercial that featured a group of women dribbling a soccer ball in platform heels).

In the film “Jurassic World” starring Bryce Dallas Howard, her character outruns a Tyrannosaurus rex in high heels.

But in the sequel, she’s given a solid pair of boots.