High heels look fabulous. They always add polish and sex appeal to an outfit. So why do they have to be so impossibly uncomfortable? As much as we want to wear them, the hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute logistical reality is just too painful. It must be this way for most women. And, yet, the shops and magazines are always full of sky-high heels. How have vertiginous heels (seemingly) become the norm?
Fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart told Emerald Street that the recent influence of the Seventies on fashion is largely responsible. But she also believes that the allure of heels also comes from their historical associations with power. High heels are far from being a 20th century invention, Butchart says. “Early Greek actors wore platforms of varying heights to denote the social status of their character, Louis XIV wore high-heeled shoes in the 1600s, while chopines were worn by aristocratic European women in the 15th-17th centuries. These women would lean on their servants and the platform ensured their clothes didn’t get dirty. Things aren’t as black and white today but I think that on some level, we’ve retained the illusion that the higher the heel, the more power a woman wields.”
Shonagh Marshall, executive curator at Somerset House, says our attraction to heels is all about aesthetics. “When we wear heels we arch our back and they transform the way we walk into a swagger. They’re the ultimate in glamour,” she says.
Not only that, but heels also heighten a woman’s sexual assets. They bring out attractive musculature in the legs and elongate them. They also tip the body so that the breasts and bum stick out. They may be symbols of power in some respects, but perhaps on some evolutionary level they also appeal to a man’s masculinity because they make a woman more vulnerable. Heels slow her down and decrease her mobility; they make her quite decorative – like a pretty bird that must be protected. Evolutionarily, it has always been in the female’s interest to seek protection by males.
These are just a few thoughts on the reasons behind heels’ enduring popularity. They certainly are open to multiple interpretations. Though Butchart and Kitty McGee, Stylist’s executive fashion editor, believe the current shift toward flatter styles (ballet flats, loafers, brogues) will continue, heels will always be a style that women fall back on (literally!).
Read more about the history and evolution of high heels here.