It may sound a tad retro-feminist, and possibly taking ‘high heels’ too seriously, but how in heaven’s can items of footwear that in effect hobble the wearer, be empowering except for a dominatrix.
Indeed, high heels could hardly be said to have been empowering even when they were intrinsically bound with very real power. The high heel was a symbol of political privilege in the French court of Sun King Louis XIV (1643-1715). The king himself owned a pair of five-inch heels and his nobles followed suit, although never in heels higher than the king – that was banned by royal decree. At 5ft 4in (1.63cm) Louis was less than statuesque and probably used heels to elevate his royal personage. But high heels weren’t just about adding height. They said something else about the wearer – their very impracticality proclaimed that here was a person of such wealth and privilege that he didn’t have to labour in the fields, or indeed trouble about walking too far.
The Sun King’s court at Versailles was a famously paranoid and rancorous place to be. Its well-heeled nobles were enslaved by the necessity to compete for the king’s favour and dictated to by fashion and foppishness. High heels may have been a symbol of being close to power, but the wearers could hardly be said to be personally empowered.
Heels have come and gone from fashion in the 300 years since the Sun King’s court. Their association with women caused them to fall out of fashion with men, who presumably threw them to the back of the wardrobe with a grateful sigh. At times, they have been wildly out of fashion – it wasn’t done in Napoleonic post-revolutionary France to be seen prancing about in high heels. Neither were they a good idea in 17th century Massachusetts where a woman could be tried as a witch for seducing a man into marriage by wearing them.
But they came into their own in the 20th century – specifically the latter half, when in 1954 Christian Dior and shoe designer Roger Vivier developed a low-cut shoe with a narrow heel called a stiletto, named after a particularly vicious type of Italian dagger. “Killer heels” were born.
Back in the 50s, however, high heels were simply glamorous and sexy fashion accessories: no one tried to argue that Marilyn Monroe posing above a subway grating in stiletto-heeled sandals and flying dress was about girl power.
It took the power dressing 1980s to make that link, and now that seems to have extended to sexualised dressing in general. Female power is about wearing what you want to wear, the argument goes. I would argue, however, that the lines have become blurred between the freedom to express our sexuality and sexualisation. One is about the free will to choose what we wear, the other is about buying into the illusory power of the dominatrix, which is less about female empowerment than about a certain type of man trying to work through some complicated and unresolved childhood issues.
It is hardly surprising that the lines have become blurred. It is still relatively recent history where the showing of an ankle could lead to social ruin. It is no wonder-women, whose sexuality was for so long suppressed – and still is in many parts of the world – revel in being able to express themselves. Wearing what we like demonstrates our free will, doesn’t it? Yes, it does, but it doesn’t follow that the choices we make are always sensible.
I’m not arguing that women shouldn’t wear high heels – but please, let’s give up the pretence that they are anything other than what they are. Glamorous, yes; sexy, yes; empowering, certainly not.
Still, maybe I shouldn’t be so concerned. My dominatrix days are over. That’s a joke by the way.