Heels are most often associated with femininity, and as a result, generally imposed on women for the sake of keeping up with the imagery. Multiple versions of the heel have been invented, such as pumps, stilettos, kitten heels and many more, and it is expected of women to wear heels to most places outside of the casual settings – their workspaces, fashion runways and extending, but not limited, to parties of differing natures. Multiple ceremonies and awards functions have a requirement that women must wear heels, the Cannes Film Festival in France is one of the biggest examples of this; one of their rules regarding the dress code stipulates that all women attendees must wear high heels in order to attend the ever so prestigious film festival. Over the years, several women celebrities have been stopped from attending the film festival for not wearing high heels. Not only such events but many companies, office places and restaurants require female employees to wear heels. There have been several instances of discrimination against women for their refusal to wear heels. For example, one such case of discrimination occurred when Nicola Thorp was fired by her manager for refusing to wear heels on her first day of work at an office job in London back in 2016. She was dressed in a suit and a pair of formal shoes. Shortly after she was fired, Thorp gained worldwide support for challenging the manager by filing a petition. The government concurred and felt that she had been discriminated against for not wearing heels, which is unlawful.
Wearing heels has become common in this day and age, it is expected of women to wear exhaustingly high heels everywhere. But there is a question that arises, how much of this expectation to wear heels for formal occasions is justified? It is evident that women must have the freedom of choice to wear whichever footwear or clothing they feel most comfortable in. If a woman feels most comfortable while wearing heels, then that is a fully valid choice. But even in these progressive times, it is men who enjoy the very same freedom, i.e. the freedom of controlling what a woman has to wear in most situations. Most women do not expressly enjoy wearing heels every single day, the same footwear which can become extremely painful for a person to wear for a mere few hours. Aside from giving women a sense of authority and power while wearing heels, there seem to be no other evident benefits or signs of comfort for a woman to wear the same. The question arises, why do women continue wearing heels despite all the negative aspects, and there being no apparent need to? The answer to this lies in the oppression of women, which ultimately stems from the system of patriarchy which is persistent in remaining pervasive in society. In order to truly understand the reasons though, we must look at the history of the ‘heel,’ and the shift in society’s perspective regarding it.
The history of heels can be traced back to the 3,500 BCE; where it was mostly the nobility who wore heels, as opposed to the common people who roamed around barefoot. Heels were also used for practical purposes, such as by butchers to ensure their feet did not come in contact with the blood or the meat of the animal. Heels were later on adopted by the Greeks and Romans to display the differences between different social classes, it is suggested that men belonging to the Middle East – who wore heels during wars while riding horses in order to get a better grip while shooting arrows – brought the concept of heels to Europe. Thus, European aristocracy soon thereafter realised that heels served a practical purpose of keeping their feet out of the mud. After all, it was mostly the higher classes who cared about protecting their feet from mud or dirt as a means to distinguish themselves from the lower classes whilst also serving a useful purpose at the same time. Both men and women had begun wearing heels around this time. Soon after the ‘chopines’ emerged, they were the first instance of platform heels that were invented. They were famous for being severely uncomfortable and hard to walk in, and often required the assistance of several men to help in walking. The chopines were the first heels that were specifically designed for women, but many feminists argue that they were invented to limit the movement of women and to ensure they do not leave their households as much. In addition to this, it became common practice to force Chinese concubines and Turkish odalisques to wear chopines in order to ensure that they would not flee. The very first example of men using heels to control the movement or freedom of women can be seen here.
Up and until the 17th century, heels were most commonly worn by men. In the 18th century, however, when the idea of imperialism had started to spread around the world, men started to abandon heels. By the 19th century, heels went on to be recognised as something inherently feminine. Post the Second World War, Christian Dior came up with ‘stilettos,’ in which he used steel rods, raising the height of the heels to three inches or more. Since then, a multitude of designers such as Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Alexander Mcqueen, and Christian Louboutin have invented different versions of the heel – all men designers scrambled to create a more elevated and much more impractical version of the heel. Designers who are known for creating quality heels usually happen to be men; the irony of men creating such footwear meant especially for women cannot go unnoticed. High heels are known and are proven to be harmful for a woman’s posture and feet, yet there is a persistent buildup of undue pressure on women to continue wearing heels. Christian Louboutin, when asked to comment upon the fact that heels are uncomfortable to walk in and slow a woman down, said, “What is the point of wanting to run?” he continued, “I am all for the pace getting slower, and high heels are very good for that.” That's right, ‘no point of women moving at a fast pace in a man’s world’.
According to a study conducted by the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, 50% of women experience daily pain from wearing their heels. Heels often put pressure on not only the feet but also the back, spines, knees and toes. High and tightly worn heels also cause blisters for a lot. Aside from this, heels can cause a myriad of other long-term problems as well, such as nerve damage and sciatica. Still, a majority of women continue wearing heels – either by their own choice or otherwise. In most parties or companies, men only feel obligated to wear suits with formal shoes; whereas women feel obligated to wear a dress and high heels as it shows ‘professional etiquette’, and many times dressing professionally can be mistaken with dressing uncomfortably just to please others. Although, women choose to wear heels most of the time as it may hand them a sense of ‘power’ and ‘authority,’ (heels are treated with a sense of hyper feminisation) but in most cases, women feel the need to abide by the invisible aura of the social construct.
Nowadays, due to the influence of the fashion industry that has capitalised off of the social construct created by the existence of heels for women, there is a shift or a transition in the way heels have started to be perceived by women in general - earlier, heels used to be treated as modes that were used by a very limited number of people whose usage of heels usually did not allow for free movement or allow for any comfort. Now, due to high-end designers coming up with more innovative heel designs and popularising the usage of heels, women perceive heels to be footwear that, when worn, can be empowering, bold, sexy and fashionable instead of simply being uncomfortable and constrictive.
In 2013, Louboutin told Vogue, “It's almost three people who are different in terms of character. I never forget that shoes also have to please men. As a man, I totally understand looking at a girl and saying, “Darling, we're having dinner together tonight, so do you mind to change?” I understand that type of mentality from a man who loves his wife, his woman. He's concerned about the way you look. It's not an ugly thing. I understand also that a woman could not care. I like my design to please women, but also to please men.”
His own words make it sound like women are meant to wear heels for ‘the male gaze,’ which seems to be the only somewhat reasonable explanation behind a woman wearing heels. This can be interpreted as women not having to be overly concerned with the way they look while wearing heels, it only matters as long as a man likes what his wife or girlfriend might be wearing.
It has become extremely normal to see women wearing extremely high heels in their everyday lives – no matter how unbearable it may be to walk in them. There will most likely not be any shift in society regarding the same, women will continue wearing heels for a long time. What can be normalised though, is ensuring that women need not feel as though they need to adhere to a certain set of expectations from society. The shift from heels being used mostly by men to then being used solely by women is a drastic one; and before we all start feminising heels to such a large extent, we must remember where they originated from and which of the two sexes wore them in the beginning, and also helped in popularising them all around the world. Heels have had a sexist and controlling past, traces of which can be seen in today’s time as well. One can only hope that fashion does not aid in the widening of the gap between men and women. At the end of the day, we must remember that gendered clothing and footwear are not defined by which sex dons the piece the most, but it is defined by how people aside from that specific gender view it. Heels can be worn by any sex or gender, but it happens to be attached to femininity.
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