Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Friday, 9 November 2007

High heels win

The empowering qualities of high heels won the Tuesday poll, by 55 per cent of the vote.

My thoughts on the subject are contained in this Telegraph piece which is not on-line:

This past year something has gone badly wrong with shoes. We are supposed to be a nation of shoeaholics, vain spendthrifts who cannot make it through a pay day without running out to buy a pair of Manolos or Jimmy Choos. But in the Autumn I made a dozen tours of shoe shops – Russell and Bromley, Kate Kuba, LK Bennett, Office, even Clarks as well as the over-stocked shoe departments of Selfridge’s and Harrods - without finding anything to buy. Whether it was Carvella or Chanel, before me were rows of towering fetish footwear, monstrously high heels atop thick platforms. I am only five feet five and not averse to acquiring the additional height, but I cannot walk in these shoes. When I say I cannot walk, I do not mean that I am unable to balance. Of course I can walk in high heels, but when I say walk, I mean the kind of walking you do to go about your everyday business, not totter a few feet across the floor of a shoe shop. Walking without searing pains in my ankles and creaking knees.

This is what I mean by walk: walk down the stairs from my bedroom, walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, get on the bus, stand until it reaches the tube station. Walk down the steps to the platform, wait, get on the tube, stand again, get onto the escalator, then along the street a few blocks to my first destination. In average day, I would expect to spend a good hour walking from one place to another. This is not exercise, it’s everyday life. But at the end of that average day walking in heels my back is spasming, my calves are aching and the evening must be spent soaking in Radox.

When I look around the streets, I do not see anyone wearing the shoes in the windows of the shoe shops. I see women wearing flats, I see them wearing boots with chunky heels, I see them wearing trainers, but I don’t see anybody at all running for a bus in this season’s shoes. At a catwalk show in the Autumn, I looked at the front row of fashion editors and saw a line of skinny jeans worn with boots or flats. No platforms, no high heels.

So what are they for? Are they car to bar shoes, designed only for a night out? Fine, if they are, I am not immune to buying the kinds of shoes one knows one only has to stand in for a few hours at a party. I have these shoes. But what are we supposed to wear the rest of the time? In my dozen trips round the shops this season, I would sometimes spy a pair that I could walk in, and on every occasion, I was told, with a puzzled look on the face of the assistant, that they had sold out very quickly, which would surprise her because, as she admitted, they weren’t the hot new shoes of the season, and it was funny that they went so fast. Finally at Kate Kuba in Sloane Square a young man admitted that this season’s shoes were so outrĂ© that anything wearable sold out at once.

We are in a devilish pickle since the demise of kitten heels. Between flats and platforms, there is nothing. You have to wait until the summer when wedges reappear, those feet friendly shoes whose banishment by fashion diktat has to be imminent, because it seems to be a rule that if you can walk in shoes, there must be something the matter with them. A clever marketing exercise was done on Manolos, when Sara Jessica-Parker told interviewers that hers were as good as fleecy slippers, ‘I could run in these!’ she said, and there she would be, on our tv screens racing along through the streets of New York. And then you went down to your nearest Manolo store and tried some on and their freakishly narrow proportions meant you could barely get your feet into them. As Joan Burstein, the legendary owner of Brown’s, the South Molton Street shop, and first employer of the teenage Manolo Blahnik, admitted to me, Manolo’s are not comfortable if you have wide feet.

I love the look of beautiful shoes and for this reason, every morning, as soon as I turn on my computer, I click on to the delicious site of Manolo the Shoeblogger, the anonymous New Yorker who combines a fascination with shoes with a witty and erudite writing style. He views shoes both as works of art, and as artefacts which should be made by the master craftsman. ‘Do not wear cheap shoes!’ he enjoins his readers. But cheap or dear, if the shoe does not fit you cannot wear it.

The backlash against unwearable shoes has come in the form of its opposite: the eminently wearable but utterly hideous shoes. If you want sensible footwear, buy ugly Uggs, or those disgusting luridly-coloured rubber shoes with holes in them, called Crocs, which were originally designed for wading into ponds to clean out the algae.

The unnerving popularity of Uggs and Crocs is testament to women losing their patience with contemporary shoe design. I find my feminist hackles rising when I look at shoes which more and more resemble a sadistic attempt to reinvent Chinese foot-binding. My mind fills with dark conspiracy theories: that the emancipation of women is being punished with exquisite pain applied to the feet, followed by blisters and bunions. And then I look at the Uggs and the Crocs and I ask why we are forced to make a choice between Crippling Beauty and Slouching Beast.

There is no other part of the body we would surrender to ugliness or pain. We don’t wear jeans that make our bums look big (or don’t if we have any sense), we don’t squeeze ourselves into too-tight clothes, yet is there a fashion conscious woman who does not have at least one pair of shoes that don’t fit and never will fit because they were half a size too small when we bought them, in the hope that somehow they could be forced to stretch?

When did shoes get so absolutely impossible? Until the 1950s, women wore closed-toe shoes with a low heel. They wore lace-up brogues to work and thought no more of it. In 1955 the stiletto heel arrived from Italy. The tall, thin heels transmitted a large amount of force in a small area, and had to be strengthened by a metal rod and a metal or hard plastic tip. The great pressure transmitted through such a heel (greater than that exerted by an elephant standing on one foot, apparently) alters the posture causing the hips sexily to sway out but also causes back pain. By the mid-Sixties, round-toed shoes with low heels replaced them, as dresses became shorter, and we should be seeing a return to these kinds of shoes with this season’s Sixties, silhouette, except we are not. High platform heels reappeared in the Seventies, along, briefly, with wedges. High heels reappeared in the Eighties, as a counterpoint to the power suit, then in the Nineties were replaced by the hideous clumpy shoes, so beloved of teenage girls.

Yet the lure of high heels won’t leave us alone. I sought a master class in the wearing of heels from novelist Susie Boyt who never wears anything else and does not own a single pair of flats. She bought her first pair of heels (Robert Clergerie in black suede) on Bond Street in 1990, after taking time out from university. ‘It made going back doable,’ she says. ‘It might not have been possible had I not bought them. I like the height they give you, I feel much more me in high heels, my best self, and I don’t feel like myself when I haven’t got them on. ’ She learned that wearing heels is ‘a discipline, like going to the gym. I wouldn’t admit to feeling pain. Your body gets used to it. I always wear bare feet at home and I did masses of dancing when I was younger which makes it easier to wear heels. There’s a lot of exercises you can do which make high heels not hurt. If I didn’t do them, they would hurt more. And I do take them off on buses and in cinemas and restaurants.’

I asked her if she could run in them, as Sarah Jessica-Parker claimed she could do in Manolos. ‘I could run if I was chased,’ she said. ‘I once walked from Crouch End to Hyde Park Corner in a pair of four inch suede strappy sandals. It must have been seven miles and I didn’t have any pain. On the other hand I know people who only wear heels and have mild, heel-induced agoraphobia. They won’t walk to the end of the road or want to take taxis three blocks because they can’t walk in their shoes and they're always grumpy. That's no way to live.’

I remain ambivalent about this you-must-suffer-to-be-beautiful philosophy, though I greatly admire Susie’s fortitude and dedication to her true self. I’m not sure that it is mine, though. Many years ago I had a pair of perfect shoes. They were pink suede wedges with pink suede ties, like Grecian sandals that wound around the ankles. They were beautiful and functional, I could walk in them and run them and wherever I went, people called out, ‘Beautiful shoes!’ Carelessly, I threw them away when they wore out. I was young and I believed that ahead of me was a whole life-time of beautiful, functional shoes; that you just had to go to Dolcis or Ravel or Saxone, and there would be another pair, waiting. My beautiful pink suede wedges were like my first pair of ice skates: in them I could glide away, effortlessly dancing, swooshing and twirling.

I was young and I was poor and I only had three pairs of shoes. Now I am old and rich and I have forty pairs of shoes and some of them may be beautiful but I can’t walk in them, let alone glide or swoosh or twirl, and some I could climb Mount Everest in, but they are never taken further than the local shops because they are hideous. Is fashion really without mercy, or compromise?


dinazad said...

AMEN, sister!

I wonder whether the complete unwearability of fashionable shoes (and indeed often fashion itself)isn't some kind of laziness of their designers? Fashion designers have been known that they don't design fashion for "real" or even fat /opulent/baroque/curvy women because their dresses don't hang well on them (i.e. because their too lazy to accept the challenge of designing something which WILL hang well on a fat etc. woman). Designing a flat or low-heeled shoe which will stand the wear and tear of everyday or tourist (i.e. lots of walking) life is probably more challenging and difficult than designing high-heeled shoes with lots of itsy details which might get detached or lost or scratched or torn in normal life, and with the elegant line of stiletto heels.

Makes me think that shoe designers just aren't up to a real challenge.

twollin said...

Linda - and YOU think you have it bad. I wear a 6-D (that is US sizes), a massively wide foot that resembles nothing less than either something found on Hobbits or a shoebox with toes. So, finding shoes that will even go over my foot is a trial- most wides do not start until US size 7. To find wides in a 6 practically calls for one of those Native American ceremonies where people swap blood. On the other hand, there are two shoe manufacturers that make shoes that may not come in wides but are on a wider last than usual - Franco Sarto and Aerosoles. There are a few hardy souls (soles?) out there who make shoes in wides in size 6. Some of them are not terribly fashionable, but they ARE comfy. But, Sarto and Aerosoles ARE fashionable and wider than most, and I stick with them when I am looking for really fashionable shoes. On the other hand, I never, ever wear a heel higher than 3 inches. Never. My back will not take it. And at my age, being able to stand and walk without a look of pain and horror on my face is a good thing.

indigo16 said...

On the same day as this post Sophia Neophitou-Apostolou also wrote in a guardian supplement 10, that she could not wear flats at all "totally impossible!!!" When I was in my late teens I had a beautiful pair of very high heeled maroon peep toes size 6 that a would walk around Leeds in all day shopping. Now a size 8 after 3 children I too have eschewed glamour for comfort, lets face it when you are Over 40 no one is realy looking our way anyway are they?

Linda Grant said...

'lets face it when you are Over 40 no one is realy looking our way anyway are they?'

Yes. They are. Stop that at ONCE.

adele said...

I can't wear high heels for very long at all. If I go to a party, I take a pair in a bag to change into. I spend my life trying to find non-flat mules and trying to match my clothes accordingly. A nightmare...but I will not have a sore back and sore feet for anything. Soon I will be old enough to be 'eccentric' and wear whatever is most comfortable ALL the time, rather than just 99% of the time.

enc said...

What a nice piece of writing. Thank you!

I think there are many directions we can take our shoe-buying and shoe-wearing, and we can show our appreciation for trends in many ways, but I personally feel that if I want to show that I'm paying attention to trends, then I "should" buy platforms.

I refuse to do it, though. I don't love platforms, and never have. They're great for someone else, but not for me.

I do love stilettos, but only when they're balanced properly. It's amazing what a properly-balanced heel will do to make a pair of shoes comfortable. Usually, that kind of design and quality comes with a high pricetag. I'll pay for quality, but not for trend.

I think a girl has to look at what her life IS, not what she dreams it will be, and buy shoes accordingly. That's not to say that we shouldn't have a few pairs of dreamy shoes . . . I think we all should. I have about three pairs of dreamy shoes. But the majority of shoes I have make sense for what my life IS. Luckily for me, flats make sense for me, and there are some really great ones out there right now. I'll keep them as long as I can, and then some other trend will come along, and I'll jump on that bandwagon——if it makes sense for me.

I love the dreamy aesthetic designers offer us. I love the creativity that goes into their processes, and I love that they design and dictate a fantasy life. But if it doesn't fit my life, why would I spend money on it?

Deja Pseu said...

I'm so with you. I am the queen of the kitten heel, and sniff them out online and IRL with a fierce dedication. Also being wide of foot, I feel your pain there too.

When I hear women describe 4" heels as very comfortable and wearable, I have to wonder what planet they're from.

Don't know if you have Stuart Weitzman's available int he UK, but they've become my go-to brand for gorgeous low-to-mid heel shoes that are frequently available in wide widths. Ferragamo makes most of their shoes available in wide, but I believe only in their boutiques.

twollin said...

Indigo16: "lets face it when you are Over 40 no one is realy looking our way anyway are they?"
Wrong. The only time men stop "looking our way" is when they are DEAD. Trust me on that one.

La chipie said...

Great post, that's sadly extremely true! I keep trying to tell myself I should try wearing heels more or I'll never get used to them but I still (of course) spend my life in ballet flats and hate all the heels I try on.
But as long as I still feel disgusted by crocs, uggs, and birkenstocks and any of those shoes that should be burnt, I'll keep trying to wear heels.
Fascinating blog, I'll keep reading.

OFF THA CUFF said...

Is it not true that the nature of the empowerment of high heels lies in how they enhance the appearance of the female figure, just like a push up bra or knickers that hold your stomach in? And that as a result the woman appears more attractive to men? And so a womans sense of empowerment comes from the extent to which man can be manipulated by her sexuality? I ask these questions as a naive young man, not to purposely provoke the wrath of feminism. Thoughts please.

Anonymous said...

I think this is gonna get worse before it gets better, if F/W 08 is anything to go by. I find the last one most disturbing and that's saying something. There's a metal bar under the bottom of her foot.

In order they are: Antonio Berardi, Alexander McQueen, and YSL.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, those links didn't come thru...check out the NYT fashion pages. The slide show is called "Cruel Shoes".

OFF THA CUFF...I guess it depends on the woman as to whether her sense of empowerment comes from being sexually alluring to men or to anyone else, for that matter. It also depends on whether or not said woman dresses for herself, other women, or men (gay or straight). For some women, dressing w/ other women and gay men are the primary goal. For some, they just like the aesthetic of themselves in heels.

Just gotta say, our post assumes that all women who wear heels are heterosexual and therefore interested in manipulating a man's sexual interest at all. Not necessarily the case...

Deja Pseu said...

There are those who would argue that a) the "power" that comes from being sexually attractive is at best fleeting, and being dependent on others whims can be withdrawn at any time, and b) that much of what is considered sexually attractive (now and in various times and places in history) is that which to some degree incapacitates the wearer.

IMHO, wanting to look good and develop a distinctive style is about a lot more than garnering sexual interest. It's about the whole self. YMMV.

OFF THA CUFF said...

all very true- thanks.

Dana said...

Not to mention that a fancy bra and knickers won't leave you unable to walk, literally, after a block or two. I can't think of any other clothing (maybe tight corsets, though I wouldn't know) that inflict so much pain. Men who've never worn heels don't understand it; they're not asked to cripple themselves for fashion.

Anonymous said...

Shoes. Interesting. Read your long story and liked it. What do you think about artificial shoes,patent plastic and cloth for the winter colds? Stella McCartney is all for these. In my opinion shoes like her´s are not healthy for anyone to use. Since SM´s ideology prevents her to use the skin of dead animals in her designs,why not skip the shoe department and the plastic bags and consentrate on what there is left?

Gina said...

Not that I doubted you, but after a very frustrating day at the mall, I am a very bitter (and nearly shoeless) woman. The choices offered this season are flats or skyscraper heels. I like a bit of a heel, but like you, walking is of vital importance. I must be able to walk in my shoes without pain or discomfort. I am not willing to suffer at all for fashion. A legion of women are crying out for the return of a 1-2.5" heel!

Dana said...

Yes, the bit of heel is key, too, as ballet flats don't provide enough support. I'm afraid I'm well into the old lady thick soles, and love my Danskos a bit too much for such an unstylish shoe. Maybe people just think I'm an off duty chef, doctor, or nurse. Not that I care.

George S said...

Hmm, apropos the question about for whom it is you are dressing, I must remind that young man of the story of Diana and Actaeon. Don't go there, bro.

And Linda, this is part of the poem you have kindly and flatteringly chosen for your new book's epigraph. It is my brief and Actaeon-like intervention in this debate.

... For whose sake
Do you become who you are? Are you alone
In the dark? Is it for yourself you ache

In the morning? Even if you were stone,
Like this goddess, you would desire beyond
Your fixity something already half-known

Yet negotiable. As a child you respond
To the adult’s gravity with a blank stare
Of instinctive hunger. You touch your blonde

Hair and bunch it in your fist. You prepare
Your flirtatious look. You play at control,
Then lost, start crying at the small despair

You’re stuck with. But this is the soul
Prepared for you, these garments that glow
In the dark and burn as fierce as coal...

And then there is that correspondence about being looked at past forty, by men...

(Retires, applying elastoplast to rent sides.)

Dana said...

And Offie, men aren't asked to gain their sense of self worth through their looks, their ability to manipulate with beauty. If you could try on this shoe, you might understand that this is why we feminists, young and old alike, are so very angry.

Linda, thank you for introducing George. Now, I have a marvelous example when I need to explain to my boss that surfing is a writer, I need to read good ones before I can turn out my next work of fiction, I mean, grant proposal.

Re. being looked at past 40: I don't know. I know the looks and the purpose of dressing for them are quite different after having twins at 37.

Of course, we've all got these eyes -- we can't help seeing, just like a dog can't help smelling. We might as well acknowledge the looks are there, with whatever interest behind them, and decide to blend, stand out, or scream "don't see me." But only two of the former options are considerate of others.

I think the shock for women comes when the purpose changes from sexuality to something different. Some women fold; others are liberated.

George S said...

Dana, the thing that is likely to confuse the young man correspondent, is the firm stand taken above - which is the stand usually taken - according to which women dress primarily for other women and gay men.

At whom then is the great anger directed? At other women and gay men? I expect not. I expect it is at the young man, and indeed this man that you are angry with.

What the poem tries to do is to understand how the notion of becoming that for which you dress arises. Or rather how I personally feel it arises. There are many factors here, amongst which time and the reproductive instincts and requirements of both male and female are parts.

Truth is generally more compex than polemics suggest and I am mildly suggesting the young man be cut some slack.

As for me, it doesn't matter. I have my own slacks. Come and be angry with me.

Anonymous said...

Advise your children to go into podiatry - they'll make lots of money! All the young women teetering around in high heels today are going to have huge back and foot problems in years to come. High heels damage the body. Full stop.

Dana said...

Goodness, sorry, that was really cutting and I don't mean to be that way to well-meaning younguns. Anger flashed out at one small point to a large segment of the culture prevailing, not completely to little Off.

I'm not always that angry, reallly, I just like to talk too much and I type too fast. And I spend almost no time thinking these things through,, or editing. But at least I'm not trying to run a country. Just one household of five and one small education program in the grant seeking aspect.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, Puritans or otherwise. (I think it's one holiday that makes sense wherever you stand.)