This week AiP investigates our relationship with fashion. Today, we’ll delve into the appeal of high-heels. On Wednesday, we’ll discuss a particular color trend in New York City. And on Friday, we’ll explore the psychology behind brands. As always, comments are welcome.
Cinderella got the prince and Dorothy was envied. Why? They donned fabulous shoes. What’s the deal with women’s relationship to their footwear?
Watch Me Walk Away
Click. Click. Click. Click.
With each measured step, my heels echoed with a finality that emphasized my leaving, which was important: I was angry and I wanted to be taken seriously. The sound of my three-inch heels striking the tiles spoke volumes—and did so much more eloquently than I would have been able to at the moment.
I had just had my first turn-on-your-heel-and-walk-away moment. A meeting with a senior vice president at a leading digital agency in New York City had gone horribly wrong: Her team had asked me to consult on a project they were considering, but within a few minutes it became clear that we would not be able to work together. She was rude to her staff and made two disparaging remarks about anthropologists. Annoyed, and believing that her behavior toward her staff spoke volumes about the sort of relationship we would have, I decided I had had enough. So I picked up my coat, turned on my heel, and walked out. It was empowering. It was a moment I’ll likely not forget soon. And it would not have been the same had I been wearing flats.
Many Western women make high-heels a part of their daily wardrobe. The relationship women have with their shoes often becomes the butt of jokes and a point of dismissal, often on the following points:
- Do women need to own so many shoes? Many men admit to have having 3-4 pairs of shoes: boots, sneakers, and a pair or two of dress shoes in black and brown. Women on the other hand can easily have 3-4 times as many.
- Do they need to be so high? Culturally, we’re primed to note the Buffy heel and the red sole of Louboutin, but it defies logic: High-heels can damage feet, which were not meant to be crammed into too tight quarters for eight hours a day (at least) or be balanced precariously on skinny supports.
- Is it really sensible to spend so much on shoes? Forbes reports that women spent $17 billion on footwear between Oct. 2004 and Oct. 2005. More recent data seems to suggest that women aren’t spending quite so much—though popular opinion disagrees (1,2).
A Short History of the High-Heel
|Sagebrush bark sandals from Fort Rock Cave, |
similar to specimens radiocarbon
dated from 10,500-9,300 years old.
Credit: University of Oregon
Athletes in the Ancient Olympic Games participated barefoot—and naked. Even the Gods and heroes were primarily depicted barefoot, and the hoplite warriors fought battles in bare feet and Alexander the Great conquered half of the ancient world with barefoot armies.The adoption of shoes, and the heel, for Greeks appears to coincide with Roman influence, and ultimately Roman conquest. Roman fashion was viewed as a sign of power and status, and shoes represented a state of civilization.
|Line drawing of chopines. |
Credit: Wikipedia commons.
The widespread popularity of the heel is credited to Catherine de Medici who wore heels to make her look taller. When she wore them to her wedding to Henry II of France, they became a status symbol for the wealthy. Commoners were banned from wearing them—though it’s doubtful that they would have been able to afford them anyway. Later, the French heel—predecessor to the narrow, tall heel of today—would be made popular by Marquise de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV. These shoes initially required women to use walking sticks to keep their balance until the height of the heel was reduced.
In the US, the French heel was popularized in the late 19th-century by a brothel, Madam Kathy’s, where the proprietor noted that business boomed after she employed a French woman who wore high-heels. So she ordered shoes for all of her girls—it seemed the “the leggy look and mobile torso derived from wearing high heels was of considerable interest to patrons,” who then ordered these French heeled shoes for their wives (6). Heel height would fall and rise again through the subsequent decades leading ultimately to the various options available today, As we turn our attention to the next section, it should not escape the Reader’s notice that heels have been linked to “professional” women as well as the aristocracy. Hold onto this thought, Readers, as we will come back to it.
Suffering for Fashion … and Sex Appeal?
Nine out of ten women wear shoes that are too tight for them. And eight out of ten women admit to wearing shoes that hurt. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, women are nine times more likely to develop a foot problem due to improperly fitting shoes when compared to men (7). These statistics are high because our feet weren’t intended to be slaves to fashion.
|The skeleton of the human foot. |
Credit: Wikipedia commons.
- The big toe projects beyond other toes (generally, though the exception known as the Grecian toe is noted, where the second toe tends to be longer than the big toe), and is bound to the other toes (non-grasping), which has been linked to the development of the ball of the foot, and is connected to the human stride.
- The arch(es) of the foot supports weight, absorbs the shock of walking, and enhances balance.
- The heel of the foot is home to an enlarged muscle that helps lift the body up and forward, shifting weight to the ball of the foot, enabling us to walk and run.
- lower back pain and posture change
- shortened Achilles tendon
- reduced mobility and heightened targeting in unsafe conditions
- and increased energy demands (heart rate and oxygen consumption increases with heel height (9)).
Based on comparative animal ecology and behavior one would predict that males should be advertising through the display of their assets (physical or otherwise). And while males do advertise in Western society, females also engage in equally conspicuous advertising and sexual signaling. Not only do we have male-male competition and female choice, but we also have female-female competition and make choice acting simultaneously (10).Smith discusses the ways high-heels can alter the female silhouette into the shape touted by Western culture as sensual:
Increased heel height creates an optical illusion of ‘shortening’ the foot, slenderizes the ankle, contributes to the appearance of long legs, adds a sensuous look to the strike, and increases height to generate the sensation of power and status (11).These ideas have been explored previously by numerous other researchers. For example, Rossi notes that high-heels alter the tilt of the pelvis, resulting in more prominence of the buttocks and displaying of the breasts, creating a “come-hither pose” also described by Rossi as the “pouter pigeon” pose, “with lots of breast and tail balanced precariously on a pair of stilts” (12). Smith concedes that we cannot definitely link the wearing of high-heels with sexually selected mating strategies in humans, but suggests that heels are a culturally derived and defined trait that helps women meet an ideal of beauty that may help them attract a mate.
|"Your Shoes Say A Lot About Who You Are." Sign in the window of a local shoe-shine shop.|
Blurring the Line Between Courtesan and Lady
To some degree, the popular opinion generally agrees with Smith. One of the comments made by a colleague about my tendency to sport heels with my wardrobe was that she was surprised by the heel height. For her it was a sign of shifting cultural norms as heels “that high” (three inches) were typically reserved for Saturday night or going out [in her day]—in other words, they were not “work” shoes. Another—a man—noted that my heels may be an attempt to “show oats” (not sow, but show, as in “show off and attract attention”). In these comments linger traces of those who helped popularize heels: the courtesans, the prostitutes, and those women otherwise involved in selling beauty and appeal.
|Madame de Pompadour, courtesan to |
Louis XV. Note her Louis heels!
Credit: Public domain.
Heels have gone up, and come down again reflect the culture and time, and needs of the population. Recently, author Elizabeth Semmalhack linked heel height in the US to periods of economic depression, suggesting that heels provided a sense of escapism in dire times (13). It is true that following the French Revolution, heels in France were lowered as the aristocrats sought to distance themselves from the power and status the higher heel represented.
Germaine Greer said:
Yet if a woman never lets herself go, how will she ever know how far she might have got? If she never takes off her high-heeled shoes, how will she ever know how far she could walk or how fast she could run?I’m not denying that my heels don’t change the way I walk, or stand. Pretty shoes are not worn to not be noticed. But I am asserting that heels change the way others—men and women—interact with me. It may have to do with the fact that I seem to walk more authoritatively (as I attempt to keep my balance, each foot must come down surely), and my standing stance is a bit straighter (again, balance) but the added height definitely helps. But with Greer’s remarks in mind, I make sure I have a pair of flats with me for when I want and need to run.
Lead photo credit.
1. Forbes. Most Expensive Women’s Shoes
2. Fashion Bomb Daily. New Study Says Most Women Own About 17 Pairs of Shoes.
3. The earliest confirmed instance of footwear dates to approximately 9,000 year ago, and was found in Oregon. However, trace imprints of what may be sandals have been dated to 500,000 years ago.
4. Smith, E.O. (1999) High Heels and Evolution: 254
5. History of Footwear
6. Smith 1999: 255
7. AAOS. Tight Shoes and Foot Problems
8. Smith 1999: 251
9. Smith 1999: 265
10. Smith 1999: 268
11. Smith 1999: 269
12. Smith 1999: 269
13. Shine. Dangerous High Heels