Is the high heel ideal empowering or restricting?
I bought my first pair of grown up heels when I was 14 years old. They were the color of mocha and squished my toes together when I wore them in the comfort of my home, but they were heels and they were mine. Mind you, I never wore them outside of the house — for some reason I felt like I wasn’t old or classy enough to break out brown stiletto heels in the conformist hallways of my middle school.
Another thing that made it hard for me to take this great leap of fashion-forward faith was the fact that none of the women in my family really believed in wearing heels. My mother dressed me in practical shoes for an everyday life; but I didn’t want an everyday life. I wanted long legs and poise, an air of elegance punctuated by the crisp noise that heels make when they hit the floor, to follow me everywhere that I went.
I’ve never related more to Isla Fisher than I did in the beginning of Confessions of a Shopaholic, as she narrates, “When I was a little girl, there were real prices and mom prices. Real prices got you shiny, sparkly things that lasted three weeks, and mom prices got you brown things… that lasted forever.”
Heels are most definitely impractical, and as many times as we hear about the “most comfortable heel” being reinvented, our feet are not made to be positioned at any angle other than flat on the ground. So why do heels still hold such a significant place in the fashion industry? High heels have a very turbulent history, a history only complicated by the numerous debates about whether heels are a symbol of power or oppression.
Firstly, let’s strike down the notion that heels are the epitome of femininity, because they were originally intended for men. That’s right, you can look all around the internet and you’ll find their origins in platformed shoes for Grecian actors, as well as ruling class in ancient Persia. In an interview for an article by Jennifer Wright of Racked, Elizabeth Semmelhack, one of the curators of Bata Shoe Museum, explained that, “When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more easily.”
The same article details the power of French, Persian and even ancient Egyptian upper class males as they chose to wear heels for the symbolism of gaining height and stature. In Italy, courtesans would wear an extremely restrictive kind of shoe called a Chopine: a stilt of a shoe that restricted movement and were nearly impossible to walk in, unless a man could lead them around in a very degrading manner. And of course let’s not forget the practice of foot-binding prevalent in ancient Chinese culture, a process of literally breaking women’s feet to create a ‘dainty’ walk and limit their mobility.
So now that we know the random and sometimes horrible origins of the high-heel trend, we must examine when exactly high heels became a sexualized, hyper-feminine aspect of fashion—especially if they started out as a symbol of masculinity or insane restriction for women. According to a Bustle article by JR Thorpe, it would take a long time before the aristocratic definition of the heel would become more accepted by common society. Puritans in Massachusetts banned all heels outright because they wanted to be so completely separated from the aristocrats from whom they had fled. In fact it wasn’t until men began to notice the effects heels had on women’s bodies—the way they created curves, chiseled their calves, and sexualized their walk—that they began to incorporate them into women’s’ fashion.
So yes, there is definitely a misogynistic history to those beautiful, red-soled Christian Louboutins you have been eyeing. Says Wright, “If comfort was the goal in how we dress, we’d all be running around in fleecy onesies like Teletubbies. It would be an awful, sexless, tasteless world. But then, I’m biased. I love high heels. They’re fascinating historical symbols of power and wealth — and one thing that I don’t think of them as being is particularly feminine.” It is very clear that heels have different meanings, uses and symbols to every person who chooses to wear them.
Women have worked very hard to define high heels for themselves in the last few hundred years or so. I truly believe that the appeal of the high heel was reclaimed by the likes of Marilyn Monroe, icons who could wear a pair of heels for the sexual appeal and yet also inspire an entire generation of women to take back their sexuality. Instead of focusing on the male gaze, it focused on women’s empowerment and self esteem.
Where do high-heels stand now? Is their history too steeped in misogyny for women to really feel powerful in them? Absolutely not. Woman have continued to define their own standards for how, when and why they will wear heels. That’s not to say that there haven’t still been circumstances where the misogyny has seeped through — in 2015 at the Cannes Film Festival, many women protested after they were turned away from screenings because they weren’t wearing high-heels. The festival had apparently tried to make a fashion statement of their own by declaring that towering high heels were the only shoe worthy of the red carpet walk. It is times like these, when the decision to feel powerful and tall is taken out of the hands of the current wearers and mandated by a third party, that the history of high-heels becomes far more of a statement than the heels themselves. According to an interview with Kristin Chenoweth for CBS News, “There’s just something about a heel — especially for women [in] a man’s world — that makes me feel stronger. I mean, I could gouge your eyes out with my heel if I wanted to, I’m just saying!”
At the end of it all, I love high heels. When I wear them I feel classy and powerful and put-together. I don’t see myself as wearing a symbol of male sexualization of women, because I have the ability to define my own symbolism for the heels I choose to wear. From the very first pair of mocha stilettos to my much more trendy block-heeled strappy sandals, or my pink velvet wedges with a flower embroidered on the side or my favorite black mules I got for $7 at a thrift store — I have a great relationship with the shoes I feel good in. I’ll never be the Carrie Bradshaw type who can throw on a pair of Manolo Blahniks and then run to catch a taxi cab mere moments later — I will always choose my own comfort over the beauty of a well-angled high heel. The important thing is that I continue to feel like myself in whatever I wear, and that I choose to wear them for me. It’s not for everybody, but it is for me, and that is totally okay.
Mila Phelps-Friedl is a third-year Journalism major who wears high heels to her 9 a.m.You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.