Pacific Standard reports on an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum called Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe.
I think high heels are one of the weirdest and most perverse customs we have over here in the putatively developed world. They’re temporary foot-binding, and if they’re worn long enough the damage becomes permanent. They don’t damage the feet as much as foot-binding did, but that’s not much of a distinction.
Now, they’re also “a choice,” and feminism is all about choice, and yadda yadda. But for one thing, they’re not a completely free choice, given all the contexts in which they’re more or less obligatory, and for another thing, I flatly reject the idea that all choices made by a woman are feminist simply because they’re choices.
“Fashion is a form of material culture that can reveal quite a bit about the personal, social, and cultural concerns of the era it comes from,” Lisa Small, the museum’s curator of exhibitions, told Forbes.
While all this may be true, heels also imply pain. In a sense, it’s kind of amazing that an item that exemplifies the fashion-over-function ethos so fully has lasted for so long. Indeed, research suggests that long-term high heel use can both “compromise muscle efficiency” and “increase the risk of strain injuries.” A recent survey conducted by the U.K.’s College of Podiatry found that, when in stilettos, most women’s feet tend to start hurting after just one hour and six minutes. Furthermore, one in three women admit to walking home shoeless due to the relentless throbbing.
Yes, fashion can reveal quite a bit about the personal, social, and cultural concerns of the era it comes from, and the fashion for grotesquely high heels reveal that for some reason we still think it’s ok and sexy and cool for women to be – temporarily or permanently – crippled by shoes. We cringe in horror at foot-binding but we take heels for granted. It’s bizarre – and revolting.
Despite all the suffering and creative lengths some entrepreneurs go to relieve it, the Wall Street Journal reports that in 2011 women spent $38.5 billion on shoes in the U.S., with more than half of those sales going toward stilettos over three inches high.
“You could just as easily ask men why they wear neckties, which aren’t particularly comfortable,” Small told the Daily Beast when discussing the complicated act of willfully wearing something that brings about infliction.
No. Ties are uncomfortable, and they are unsuitable for vigorous physical activity, but they don’t actually deform and lame their wearers.
“The necktie has a universal currency of power whereas the high heel doesn’t. It’s too bound up in sexualization and objectification. Yet many women enjoy wearing them because they want to look conventionally sexy or because they like the confidence that comes with extra height.”
And they live in a culture where shoes like that are coded as sexy and beautiful, and where being sexy and beautiful is at the top of the list of things women are expected to be.
So when and why did women start donning the accessory? Elizabeth Semmelhack, author of Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe and senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, believes the answer lies in mid-19th-century pornography, which used the recent invention of photography to disseminate images of naked women in heels. While this convergence of events infused the shoe with its erotic aura and modern feminine identity, these women didn’t have to stand in a pair of stilettos for very long or move around that much.
Which is apparently how we still like our women.