Let Killer Heels Go the Way of the Corset

Why is this man writing a column about women’s high heels?

This week’s news that organizers of the Cannes Film Festival were accused of turning away women from events for not wearing high heels has shown just how far “footwear correctness” has gone.

Several of the women barred at Cannes had medical conditions, and at least one was stopped four times from entering events even though she had a partially amputated foot. Producer Valeria Richter said she was stopped by red-carpet enforcers who pointed and wagged their fingers at her flat shoes and said: “No, no, this won’t work, you can’t get in like this.” Richter says she can’t “keep her balance” in heels after having her big toe and part of her left foot amputated. She eventually was admitted to events but said that many of her friends who didn’t wear heels “were rejected and did not come in.”

For decades I have listened to women complain about the excruciating pain and damage to their feet that high heels can cause. Foot surgeons warn of the bunions, hammer toes, and deformities that hours in high heels can bring. I have also stood next to more than one friend who had her heel caught in a manhole cover or subway grate with no prospect of undoing the buckling of the shoe.

Yes, of course, women bear much of the blame for being “slaves to fashion” and continuing to wear them. But there is also the tyranny of shoe designers — 95 percent of whom are men comfortably wearing flat shoes day after day — who pressure women into even more bizarre styles of footwear. 

Cannes director Thierry Frémaux says there is no formal ban on flat shoes stepping on the red carpet at his events. But other award ceremonies have also seen feminine rebellions. At last year’s Golden Globe Awards, British actress Emma Thompson arrived on stage to announce an award clutching her Christian Louboutin stilettos in one hand and a dirty martini in the other. She flashed Louboutin’s trademark red-lacquered soles at an amused audience, clutching her heels indignantly. “My blood,” she quipped, before tossing the shoes back over her head to cheers and laughter.

Sarah Jessica Parker has admitted that being in heels constantly on the set of Sex and the City destroyed her feet.

But the response of shoe designers has been, at best, indifference. Christian Louboutin recently announced that he will produce the first eight-inch stiletto shoes seen outside fetish movies. Society is clearly of two minds about high heels. New York’s Brooklyn Museum recently held an exhibition on “Killer Heels,” which pointed out just how they have been glamorized via countless fashion runways and TV shows such as HBO’s Sex and the City.

Sarah Jessica Parker, the star of Sex and the City, admitted in a 2013 interview that being in heels constantly on the set of the show destroyed her feet. 

More and more of this dark side of women’s footwear is emerging. I recently took in an exhibition at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum entitled “Fashion Victims” that went through the history of women’s footwear.

High-heeled shoes were originally a men’s accessory. They enabled horseback riders to stand in their stirrups and shoot bows more accurately. But gradually women were roped into the idea. Renaissance Italian women teetered on such impossibly high “chopine” platform shoes that some required attendants to keep them upright. Chinese women were hobbled by foot-binding wedges. All in all, while high heels are often highly seductive, women have had to pay a high price to thus project their femininity and sex appeal.

Eventually, I suspect, the most stratospheric high heels will go the way of the corset. For much of the 19th century women were bound in corsets, tight-laced garments that made them look impossibly slim-waisted. But they also caused curvature of the spine, rib deformity, injury to internal organs, respiratory problems, circulatory diseases, and a range of fertility issues. Groups sprang up such as Britain’s Rational Dress Society, and the corset was thankfully relegated to the dustbin of fashion history.

Gad Saad is an associate professor of marketing at Canada’s Concordia University. He told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that the future is bleak for shoe rationality unless women themselves decide to step down from the highest heights: “What we’re looking at is a form of runaway selection in an attempt to create an ever more alluring visual stimulus. In a sense it will only stop once it is no longer feasible for women to actually move.”

Let’s continue to celebrate women who make dressing up fun and sexy by wearing reasonable high heels. But let’s also strike a blow for rationality and women’s health by making “extreme heeling” a human-rights issue and a new fashion faux pas.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.

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