Caroline Groves b.1959, Parakeet shoes, Photography by Dan Lowe

The Height of Fashion

27th November 2015

Jennifer Lipman explores the pain and pleasure of wearing vertiginous heels...

Stumbling out of the party, clutching my five inch heels and wincing at my blisters, a thought ran through my mind: why do I do this to myself, again and again? Indeed, why do so many women tolerate the agony, back pain and bunions that so often come with wearing stilettos, wedges or platforms, rather than opting for a sensible pair of trainers or flats?

To quote Cinderella, it’s because “one shoe can change your life”; to quote Coco Chanel, it’s because “a woman with good shoes is never ugly”. Either way, women across the world are firmly attached to their heels; figures from the College of Podiatry suggest nearly half of British women willingly endure agony to keep wearing their favourite pair, while more than a third have walked home bare-footed rather than stay in their heels a second longer.

If history is any guide, the attraction of those extra inches is unlikely to wane. We’ve been suffering for our shoes for centuries, as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition makes clear. “Height has been a constant characteristic... of footwear for the elite all over the world from ancient Greece until today,” explains research assistant Lucia Savi. The display includes a classical statuette of Aphrodite in vertiginous platforms and a pair of 28.5cm high platform clogs from 19th century Egypt. “The desire to stand above everyone else is not only a prerogative of our century,” she says.

Heels arrived in Europe from the east in the late 16th century. Men were the first customers, following – literally – in the footsteps of men across western and central Asia. “Heels secured the foot in the stirrup when riding,” explains Savi. “Associated in the European mind with the military might of Persia and with masculinity, the style was enthusiastically adopted.”

Heels were soon “all the rage in Elizabethan Europe”, explains Portsmouth University’s Dr Ed Morrison, who has explored the psychological factors at play. He says the fact that it was a male trend first is logical “because height is attractive in men, but not in women”. But as we know, that soon changed and heels were adopted by the fairer sex, acquiring associations with both loose morals and luxury.

Nowadays, the high heel is almost a byword for glamour; we learn from the media, from our mothers and from fashion that stilettos equal sophistication. Think of the flat shoe ban on the Cannes red carpet last year - it wasn’t because the organisers were worried the men would tower over their leading ladies, now was it?

Like hair dye and make up, says Dr Morrison, heels “are just part of the many things that women do to change their physical attractiveness”. In our minds, heels make us more alluring, transforming us from our drab selves into Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw, regardless of how much weight we’ve gained or whether our hair is frizzy.

Naturally, it’s at least partially about sex appeal. “There is a direct cultural association now between heels and sexiness,” suggests Dr Morrison. “Even
just a picture of a woman in heels can look appealing.” But as shoe blogger Fi points out, women wear heels as much for communicating power as for
seduction. “Many women feel more confident in heels and therefore more powerful in a workplace situation,” she says. “That’s why women choose to wear them.”

So do heels genuinely make us appear more attractive or assertive? The latter may be in our imagination, but Dr Morrison suggests there is some truth to the former. He believes women first adopted heels because they somehow knew that the elevation changed their gait to make them more traditionally ‘feminine’. In laymen’s terms, women figured out they were shorter than men and built differently, and that high heels exaggerate these differences, causing more ‘hip sway’. “It could be an arbitrary cultural association... but I don’t think so,” he says. “I think high heels can actually make women more physically attractive.”

They can also make us poor. Designers like Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin are now household names among women who can scarce afford their steep prices, and even cheap heels are unlikely to be good value for money, unless we wear them as much as our boots or trainers. But the effect on our bank balances pales in comparison to the potential for physical damage.

Among numerous studies, Stanford University researchers warned in January that wearing vertiginous heels could lead to osteoarthritis, while in 2013 the College of Podiatry found that 90 per cent of women have suffered a foot problem, with the implication that one factor in this is wearing heels.
“Repeatedly wearing very high heels for prolonged periods changes how the body moves and how one walks,” says Helen McKeeman, advanced podiatrist adviser to Arthritis Care. “This will alter the pressure on joints, which may increase potential for joint damage and arthritis.”

“Walking in high heels has different effects on different joints so women should take warnings seriously, and consider the impact of their footwear,” echoes Arthritis Research UK spokesman Dr Phil Conaghan, a professor of musculoskeletal medicine at Leeds University, pointing out that heels lead to issues such as bunions. “For people with existing leg injuries or arthritis, inappropriate footwear may aggravate your joint pains.”

Naturally, the risks differ for the sporadic wearer versus the woman who won’t leave the house in flats.  “Prolonged wearing of high heels is likely to lead to long term joint issues,“ says Dr Phil. He suggests minimising risk by wearing trainers to work “or maybe saving the high heels for special occasions”.
So what shoes should we go for, to minimise risk and ensure comfort? Surprisingly, it’s not a flat; the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists says that 3cm is ideal for daily wear. Equally, there are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ styles. McKeeman says that when doing lots of walking, we should choose shoes held on securely with a strap or laces, while Dr Conaghan points out that wedges and block heels spread the weight, thus sparing the joints. Meanwhile, the College of Podiatry says we’re better off buying shoes in the afternoon when our feet are likely to be the most swollen.

Happily, says Fi, the word is that the blockier heels of the 90s are due for comeback, keeping the foot experts and the fashionistas happy. But as she points out, our footwear – and what we see as comfortable – will always be a matter of choice. “Personally, I think a mid-height heel is best for comfort,” she says. “It’s all down to the individual, though.  I know someone who finds four inch stilettos easy to walk in, and others who won’t wear heels at all.”
Clearly, we’re unlikely to go cold turkey on the heel. They may be doing us damage, and we’re probably only wearing them because (rightly or wrongly) we think they make us look better. But Dr Conaghan isn’t overly optimistic. “Given how many women suffer from foot and joint pain in the name of fashion, I would hope more women start to care for their feet a little more. But I don’t think doctors will ever be advisers on fashion!”

Savi agrees. “Given the historical evidence, I think both men and women will continue to adopt height in the future,” she says. “Either in the form of heels, platforms or other futuristic shapes.”  

Whether she’s right about men is debatable, but we probably will keep gritting our teeth through the blisters. After all, what’s a bit of pain compared with looking sexy and stylish, elongating our legs and jazzing up some trousers or an old frock?

As Fi says, “as long as the shoes are being made and women enjoy wearing them, women will never be separated from their heels.”

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