The Height of Fashion

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

I’ve been told that, as a toddler, I used to find my way into the recesses of my mother’s closet and emerge gumming one of her prized high-heeled shoes. Of course, this habit was not looked on favorably by my mother, who would remove the heel from my mouth with muffled shrieks of “Rachel, no! This rarely stopped me from venturing into the closet again when her back was turned and the door left ajar — the glitzy, pointy objects were irresistible. This fascination with heels was carried into my adolescence, and as my thirteenth birthday approached, my mother took me to a shoe shop to buy a pair of my own. I had spent most of my life running around barefoot or in scrappy sneakers, but with high school and formal dances looming, my mum agreed that it was time to progress to more sophisticated footwear. I chose a glossy black pair with high, tapering heels, the kind that I’d seen adorning Rihanna and J-Lo’s feet as they floated down the red carpet. As we drove home, I couldn’t resist opening the shoe box to admire the dark sheen and perfect curves peeking out from beneath the tissue paper. There was something magnetic about them, something that seemed to embody the annoyingly elusive “feminine grace” that, at the tender age of twelve, I desperately sought.

That first pair of heels provided hours of pigeon-toed happiness as I practiced strutting up and down the corridor, attempting a wobbly version of Kate Moss’s catwalk. Heels seemed to herald my first unsteady steps into the realm of Confident Women, the kind of women who weren’t afraid to wear red lipstick or own their opinions or call out someone who cut them in line at the grocery store Perhaps it was the added height, or the extra jolt of confidence, but I felt that maybe there was something to that Marilyn Monroe quote “Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.” During our high school years, my friends and I would shrug off our school uniforms and ties, slip into thrift-shop dresses, pull on our platforms and stilettos and cruise out of the door, feeling sexy, liberated, full-grown. There was a heady sense of independence that went along with the click-click of heels on a sidewalk.

It was only years later, when travelling through Paris during my gap year, that this belief in the magic ability of heels to express femininity was challenged. Wandering through the Louvre, I came across a series of 1700s portraits which offered a glimpse into the fashion world of a bygone era. Continuing through the gallery, I was confronted by a portrait of King Louis XIV looking down from the wall in full royal regalia, sword at his side… and a pair of red heels on his feet. A few minutes spent scouring the internet revealed that King Louis was not alone in his preference for high-heeled shoes. In fact, men had been wearing high heels for centuries. The heel’s birth-place was not, as I had assumed, the sleek shelves of Prada — it was the tenth-century Persian cavalry.

The original high heel was not a fashion statement; it was an instrument of war. The Persian army employed the high heel in order to gain more stability when shooting arrows from horseback mid-battle — heels crucially prevent the stirrup from sliding off the foot. As Europeans imported and appropriated “Oriental” aesthetics in the 1700s, what began as a Persian technological advancement became a fashion trend among upper-class men. Having lost all practicality (no upper-class Frenchman was wielding arrows from horseback at this point), heels became a symbol of masculinity and class. Their very absurdity — as footwear that actually impedes movement — helped to preserve the lines between the working class and the elite. Elite women quickly took up the fashion trend — appropriating aspects of men’s clothing was always daringly à la mode. This handy method of social segregation proved so effective, and the heel was so popular, that the French nobility imposed laws to stop commoners from adopting the high heel: it became illegal for commoners to wear anything higher than an inch while the nobility enjoyed two inches, and royalty was allowed two and a half. Red colouring, an effect created by an expensive dye, and reminiscent of the high heel’s warlike origins, was reserved for those of the highest social rank.

But around the time of the Enlightenment, as Watt was tinkering away at the steam engine and Descartes was laying the foundation of rationalist philosophy, the high heel slowly lost its androgynous status. Philosophers were ushering in a new emphasis on rationality and utility — but as distinctly masculine traits. And as women were increasingly viewed as frivolous and irrational, the heel became narrower and less practical. As the Rights of Man emerged, high heels ceased to divide classes and began instead to divide genders. Men were flat-shoed and capable, while heels and corsets conspired to make women frivolously ornamental, prone to trip or faint at the slightest provocation.

Today, very few women know the origin of their spiked footwear. There’s a general consensus that heels add something to a woman’s figure. Whether the effect is due to a lengthier leg, accentuated curves or good old social construction, we’ve come to see high heels as a feminine essential, from the dance floor to the corporate office. The glamorous image of the high heel has managed to distract from the impracticality of walking around on romanticized stilts.

Watching the Oscars of 2013 is a reminder that heels’ original purpose didn’t involve contact with the ground. While Persian horse-riders found heels provided stability, Jennifer Lawrence’s shoes let her down on the sketchy terrain of the red carpet. As she casually laughed off the fall and got back up to mount the stairs, I couldn’t help but wonder whether anyone would have noticed her wearing a sturdy pair of sneakers under the concealing folds of her Dior Haute Couture gown.

My mother used to watch from the living-room armchair as my friends and I dolled ourselves up, giving us a smile and a nod as we filed out of the house. Mum stands at an impressive six feet tall when barefoot, and drags her glamorous heels out of the closet only in Exceptional Circumstances. Weddings, birthday parties and funerals make the cut, and I would follow in her elongated shadow as she made her way around a room, bending to hug relatives and friends. The next day often involved foot rubbings and back massages. My father, who is also about six feet, generally arrives at family gatherings in a pair of sturdy black oxfords, and joins the game of volleyball in the backyard while my mother watches from a comfortable chair.

Though once the norm, today a man strolling down the street in heels will attract a few odd looks — a fact that has been put to good use by the “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” events, held in protest of gender violence, which see hundreds of men take to the streets in red stilettos. The connection is clear. Red for violence, heels for women. But there’s something comical about the scene. The image of men in Nike socks and shorts tottering around in red heels, stumbling and laughing at one another as they make their way along the sidewalk, is pressed into my mind. The large, hairy feet stuffed into red stilettos, the winces that go along with every step, the men clinging onto each other’s shoulders for support. Observers in roadside cafes and shops snap pictures of the group as they strut past, cheering their audacity, laughing at the spectacle. I wonder how many of them consider what their ancient predecessors would have thought of a group of crimson-heeled men marching the streets. King Louis, I’m sure, could imagine nothing more profoundly masculine. But the modern stiletto, birthed in the sexism of enlightenment philosophy, is a far cry from the Persian military shoe. It seems that when the heel narrowed to the width of a finger, it lost its masculinity along with its usefulness.

These days, my fashion choices aren’t as simple as those of my twelve-year-old self. The physical allure of the sleek, shiny curves is undimmed — but holding them in my hands now conjures other images to mind. Gaggles of girls drifting home from various parties across New Haven, stumbling in their stilettos under the hazy light of the streetlamps. My mother, pulling on her heels with a grimace before a birthday party. The laughter of the bystanders as a group of high-heeled men totters by. There are still nights when I just want to hear the click of my heels on the pavement. But more often than not, I choose to pull on a pair of sneakers, my footfalls muffled as I run down the street.


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