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Fashion
April 07, 2017

Why Have Heels Always Been A Woman’s Best Friend?

Text by Viseshika Sharma. Image Courtesy: Clair De Lune, Christian Louboutin

It’s because no ordinary flats can produce the seductive gait achieved by a pair of gravity-defying stilettos.

There’s this unusually innocent Khushwant Singh joke about a hopeful mother who responds to a matrimonial advertisement on her daughter’s behalf. On being told that her five-foot-tall angel falls below the minimum height requirement of five feet, four inches, the mom promptly enquires if she will be deemed acceptable by wearing four-inch heels! When they aren’t being used to bridge an alliance of mismatched heights, heels induce nostalgia and communicate both femininity and power. Every woman remembers playing dress-up in her mother’s stilettos, the excitement of buying her first pair — and then the first undignified fall! Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik are regularly namechecked by women of style, with a passion that has never extended to that sensible driving loafer. When Nancy Sinatra sings These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, nobody imagines clunky military boots.

High heels aren’t a modern invention — butchers in ancient Egypt were reported to sport shoes that elevated them above the rather messy hazards of their occupation. Venetians and Spaniards wore chopines — platform overshoes that kept their hems and regular footwear clear of the muck of the streets. The higher the chopines, the greater the wearer’s standing in society, making the platforms the original limo-to-club footwear as Venetian nobility became dependent on servants to prop them up as they walked. However, since they are counted as being high only when the wearer’s heels are significantly elevated over their toes, chopines and modern-day flatforms don’t quite make the cut.

During the European Renaissance, prominent royalty, like Catherine de Medici, wore elevated footwear to boost their stature, and by the early 1600s monarchy had taken to wearing red-heeled shoes, a luxury only they could afford due to the cost of the dyes. Madame de Pompadour inspired an eponymous, narrowly curved version that titillated in the boudoir. Louis XIV finally passed an edict decreeing that only nobility could wear red heels, purportedly symbolising that the wearers were ‘always ready to crush the enemies of the state at their feet’. Little wonder then that they were promptly discarded after the French Revolution, as citizens distanced themselves from the ways of the aristocracy.

Fragile, tiny-heeled mules complemented the evening dresses of the early 19th century, the height increasing steadily as the years went by. Flappers jaunted about town in high-heeled Mary Janes, and sandals reappeared in the 1930s, after being in hiding for centuries — they were long considered to expose too much skin to be morally acceptable. In India, Indira Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar, had red bead-encrusted wedge sandals made for her by Salvatore Ferragamo, and other notables wore elegant Mary Janes with their saris and jewels. After the war years when supplies were rationed, the high heel came back with a bang with Christian Dior’s New Look. Created by Roger Vivier, albeit in Dior’s atelier, the stiletto heel was associated with sex symbols like Bettie Page and Marilyn Monroe, to whom many bon mots are ascribed, becoming an object of erotic allure. Women who wore them were considered delightfully feminine, but by the ’60s they became a symbol of female subjugation. The ’70s were ruled by inelegant platforms, but the ’80s and ’90s celebrated the high heel for connoting a level of authority again. Rather than denoting subordination they were liberating for the assertive, modern woman.

Since then, fashion glossies have produced innumerable iconic images celebrating the power of a killer pair, whether to communicate authority in the workplace or eroticism in the bedroom. The late 2000s saw many iconic variations — Prada’s curved ‘banana’ heel which inspired a hundred high-street clones, Marc Jacobs’ ‘misplaced heel’ shoes, high-heeled gladiator sandals from Balenciaga, and United Nude’s Eamz pumps — inspired by the base of the Eames chair. A confident woman striding along smoothly in a gorgeous pair of high, high heels inspires admiration and sometimes a bit of fear, and that motif has entered the visual lexicon of cinema. The television series Sex and the City documented fictional Carrie Bradshaw’s obsession with her shoes, but it was the first Sex and the City film, in 2008, that caused true high-heel hysteria. Mr Big proposing to Carrie in a closet, with a pair of Manolo Blahnik Something Blue satin pumps, is an iconic moment in a TV and movie series filled with meaningful ‘shoe-ments’, but the real star was the Dior Extreme gladiator sandal. Sarah Jessica Parker sports two pairs of the distinctive platform style in over five per cent of her 81 wardrobe changes in the film and, overnight, trophy bags had made way for the first It shoe.

A couple of years ago, the Cannes Film Festival courted controversy by turning away women wearing flats or platform sandals, prompting an outcry against the sexist ruling. But freedom of choice, and incredible variety in flats aside, the plethora of advice regurgitated every season about how to survive in heels is an indicator that our favourite leg-elongating, form-lifting tools aren’t leaving us any time soon. Gianvito Rossi, Charlotte Olympia, Nicholas Kirkwood and Casadei all captivate with lust-inducing designs. Isabel Marant and Nike’s wedge sneakers were proof that even in low-key mode, nothing can keep us away from our heels. Joggers or rolled-up cargo pants worn with stilettoes aren’t a rare sight. Indian pavements being famously treacherous and, try as we might, rather unavoidable, our lives have been made way easier with stacked and block heels. Styles with minimalist uppers are chic and versatile enough to wear with both androgynous and feminine looks. Shoe envy is so pedestrian — it’s all about shoe closet envy now. If your feet can still feel pain after years in vertiginous heels, designer Neil J. Rodgers is the man with all the answers. The former stylist has created a line of shoes that looks formidably sexy from every angle, but conceal a seven-millimetre-high foam cushion in the sole, ensuring the most comfortable high-heel experience you’ve ever had.

What, then, is the next frontier, you may wonder. You need only look to Saint Laurent’s Fall 2017 collection for a shoe that’s both exhilarating and perplexing. Black patent leather shoes with a pointed toe, cut low on the foot to reveal ample toe cleavage, with a slim, mirror-chip-decorated heel that extends from the shaft and lays flat on the ground. Mark your calendars.

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