Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Should feminists wear high heels?

The Wrong Shoes!!!Ah, now there's a loaded question if I ever saw one. My first instinct screams, "Well, what kind of a dumb question is that? They can wear whatever the hell they want. Scratch that: ANYBODY can wear WHATEVER THE HELL she or he wants!"

And look, Bitch Ph.D., a passionate feminist and academic, has on more than one occasion professed her love for super stylish, professorial budget-defying high heels. (It is through her that I also discovered The Manolo.) If I remember correctly one of her older posts (like months and months ago), she used to do the "feminist" thing (not shaving, etc.) but now she's into "femme-y" things, like high heels and lace lingerie, and that's what she wants to do. And who can argue with that.

Certainly not me.

I'm a feminist--in that, like any sensible person, I expect (and demand) equal rights and responsibilities for women and men (equal pay, etc.), I support a woman's right to her own body (yes, pro-choice all the way), and I am sensitive to any way, shape, or form of gender discrimination, whether it manifests itself in issues such as rape, sexual harassment, domestic violence, promotion, salary, or cornering women into stereotyped gender roles that prevents them from expressing their own personhood. I am also favorably disposed towards a variety of issues on the feminist agenda, too numerous to list here, so let's just stick with the basics.

Austrian fetish shoe, 8 inches, ca. 1900Where was I? Oh yeah: cornering women into stereotyped roles that squash their personhood in order to re-assert societal (that is, patriarchal) norms, which basically can be reduced to the following barebones caricature: men are the strong, dominant sex in power, with more rights and privileges, and women are the second-class citizenry, kept around the house for the purpose of servi(ci)ng men by carrying their offspring, cleaning the house, and offering sex. Oh, and being pretty--for, no matter what progress we've made as a society, the pressure is ten thousand times-fold greater on women to be pretty than on men to be handsome, n'est ce pas? And if you still persist (wrongly) in believing that American women have gotten all the rights they'll ever need (again, you'd be very very wrong), all you have to do is cast a jaundiced eye to our sister south of the border. Or in Africa. Or anywhere in the Arab countries. Get the picture?

English 5 inch shoes, ca. 1890But hey, this is a fashion blog that attempts to put some sense into shoe-wearing, so why get into all these heady issues, indeed?

There are two main historical threads intertwined with the status of the stiletto today. The first is class. High heels were indicative of one's higher social status in 15th century Venice or 17th century France, for example. Higher status was literally translated through height. The second is sex fetishism. Bizarre forms of high heels have been used from the Victorian era on in order to exacerbate shapes and curves (e.g., making the instep protrude, etc.) as well as to immobilize the wearer in erotic stances.

Turkish or Syrian platforms, early 20th centuryThe modern stilettos and high heeled platforms no doubt owe some of their allure to these two historical trends. The classist hint assures their prominence in "haute couture" or "high fashion." The "sexy" hint (somewhat diluted from the S&M games they was once confined to) has been preserved in all of their incarnations. I have my own reservations to the kind of "sexy" the high heel alludes to, but hey, I'm not going to judge.

Fetish boot, Austrian, ca. 1890My main problem comes (no surprise here!) from trying to reconcile comfort with stlye. While I am aware of the feminist (and Marxist) critiques of fashion, I love frou-frou (to quote Henri V), I love style, I love clothes, I love shoes, I love pretty things; I am a feminist who shaves her legs and armpits and plucks her eyebrows and likes to play with fashion and will even wear mascara every once in a while. I regard it as a game to be enjoyed, as yet another avenue to explore beauty in our lives. Our sartorial choices, as I've pointed out in an earlier post, always say something about ourselves, the kind of person we want to be or want to be perceived as, even if it's only something like, "lover of color," or "lover of comfort," or "thinks layering is fun." The people who claim they don't care about what they wear will still send the message "I don't care how I look, and I don't give a damn about what you think of me either," which in and by itself is always telling, depending on the context. So, I have no problem with wanting to look "sexy" or "desirable" to a point, but I want to do it on my terms, terms that will make me feel good and make me feel comfortable (after all, I've never had a single masochistic tendency in my life). As such, taking care of myself, highlighting my strong points and de-emphasizing my flaws is part of the image I want to project for the others as well as for myself. I draw the line, however, when that requirement cripples my movement, makes me dependent on Band Aid and podiastrists, and sends me into middle or old age with back or knee problems.
The ill-famed bound or For the record, I also abhor plastic surgery of any kind and I also think we’ve gone too far with the ubiquitous “pamper yourself” and “indulge” slogans (they’re everywhere people, from beauty treatments to chocolate to department stores! Doesn’t that make you a bit self-reflective?).

Italian chopines, 16th century. Talk about non-existing arch support!I guess that the idea of somebody dictating us what to wear in the name of "sexiness" should be at the very least disturbing (and don't forget who you want to be sexy for, ladies!). The pictures I've peppered this rather heavy entry should be enough to start questions the standards of fashion we are forced to measure up against. And looking at them, the question I posed in the title of this post doesn't seem to be that stupid, all of a sudden. How high is high enough? How painful or impractical does a shoe have to be to cross the line between couture and fetish? What kind of message are we transmitting when we walk in these shoes? If you are a feminist (and you SHOULD be!), how do you reconcile the classist and sexist assumptions embodied in the notion of a high heel with your own convictions about women's rights? And, finally, if you don't really care about that, the still most important question of comfort still remains: can we walk in these shoes and feel good (comfortable) at the same time?

And as I write this, I just saw, from the window of the coffee shop, a young girl walking barefoot on the (most unsanitary!) streets of Philadelphia, carrying her 3" or higher black slides in her hand.


All the pictures in this post have been shamelessly scanned from Linda O'Keeffe's great little book Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More, which contains, despite the evidence collected for this blog, a large number of really beautiful shoes. Mouse over the images for a brief caption.


At 7:47 PM, Anonymous Lol B said...

Fantastic post! Great images and you make some excellent points!

I'm with you on not being prepared to suffer in the name of fashion, I also couldn't even if I wanted too, I've bunions and a twisted pelvis from childbirth!(Gosh, I sound like a hag don't I!).I'd look quite startling staggering down the street in killer heels. And I do stagger in heels, I look like I've pooped my pants!

I wore VERY high heels in the 80's when I was a teen and a slave to fashion and now have the disfigured feet to show for it(Christ, you couldn't even buy flats in the 80's unless you wanted to wear your Grans "hush puppies"). I was excited when 'Bros'(English pop sensation) made wearing Docs cool in the late 80's, we would decorate them with Grolsch beer bottle tops, mmm lovely.

I do own some heels, but rarely do they see the light of day. Not only for reasons of comfort but also because of my feminist beliefs. As I've gotten older I've also got more confident in my sexuality, I feel like I don't need to please men so much, rather they need to be pleasing me now! Heels can make you feel sexy but they can also make you feel utterly vulnerable and silly at the same time.

What was fascinating yesterday whilst shopping with my partner for shoes (for an an important interview he has today) was that men are now wearing uncomfortable shoes. I was surprised at the amount of pointy narrow fitting shoes that seem to be the latest style for men, they had winklepickers a plenty in all the shoes shops we visited. I wonder if men will be so prepared to suffer in the name of fashion? I think not.

AnywayS we returned with a beautifully soft, stylish pair of Campers which my partner swears by.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger dream royale said...

those pictures made my feet hurt just looking at them...

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Scarpediem said...

Ah, fashion student, that is an excellent point you made about heels and confidence. I think sometimes stilettos exploit women's insecurities ("Not sexy enough? Why, try these heels, at a bargain $149.99!") just like the vast majority of beauty products do. As women grow older, more mature, and more confident, they realize they don't need those uncomfortable props to be beautiful.

The man issue is for another post. I think some do suffer in the name of fashion, but those are the weird ones or the exceptions (whereas for women, it's the expected norm).

At 6:28 AM, Anonymous Lol B said...

here's a question to ponder,

'If men did not exist, would we ladies still wear high heels'?

If the answer is no, what does this imply??

At 12:24 AM, Anonymous Lol B said...

I'd like to add that that's the dumbest remark I've ever made, duh!!

It's just so pointless on many levels!

At 1:54 AM, Blogger Henri-V said...

I didn't have a chance to comment earlier. [And reading about Lol remarking that she looks like she pooped her pants when wearing heels made me roar the first (and second) time reviewing this.]

After seeing these pictures and reading this post's content, I never wanted to wear real heels again. My boyfriend calls them as he sees them: he says, "Oh, you aren't wearing those cruel shoes out today? I thought they hurt your knees." I used to say, "Oh they don't feel that bad .. and I can always slip them off under my desk." Now he doesn't have to say much anymore because I've self-edited my heel holdings.

Okay, in honesty, I still like teeter-free wedges and boot heels if not unstable, but comfort and orthopaedic health have beaten "prettiness" in the past year. And I do dress for myself and often other women, not for men. Am I sexy/attractive/feminine? Ehhh, was I ever, even with heels? I don't know, maybe. I don't think I care. It's rather counter to a lot of what people feel, but I don't find fashion all that sexy. Aesthetically pleasing/challenging/arty/culturally specific, yes, but really it's like wrapping paper to the important gift it contains. Personalities are sexy. Those two things are so separate for me that sometimes I forget that there is this whole subtext to women's clothes and shoes, even if I am not aware of it.

Am I a "post-feminist"-feminist? Or am I just ignorant?? (;-o

Another thing: I always go back to panic mode when I think about wearing heels: can you run fast enough to escape danger or save someone in heels?

NO! You mince along, Godzilla squashes the school bus, the bad guys get you, and then it's over.

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