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The future of high heels?

Long viewed as indispensible in a woman’s wardrobe, high-heeled shoes have recently come under attack from a growing army of disenchanted wearers, while others have declared their continuing affection for this style of fashion footwear.

by Stuart Morgan

”I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot,” said Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe. High-heeled footwear – often simply called ‘high heels’ or just ‘heels’ – are an incredibly important part of many manufacturers’ collections each season. Supporters of such shoes say that high-heeled shoes can make a woman’s legs appear longer and more slender, while those in the opposing camp claim that raising the heel so much higher than the toe can cause physical damage to feet, knees, backs and muscles.

The number of high heels that are sold around the world every year is evidence of their popularity, despite any pain experienced when wearing them for extended periods of time. This article investigates how this style developed into the mass-market product worn in most parts of the world, and considers possible psychological reasons for women buying high-heeled shoes.

Early times

Historical records and archaeology suggest that the majority of early shoes were completely flat, footwear with heels being reserved for the higher classes of society – both male and female (and even then, normally just for ceremonial purposes). Egyptian butchers in the days of the Pharaohs are also depicted as wearing heeled shoes, apparently to help them to walk above the blood and other remains of the butchered animals. Centuries later, in ancient Greece and Rome, platform sandals called ‘Kothorni’ were worn. These were shoes with high cork or wooden soles, often seen on the stage where actors wore footwear of different heights to portray a specific social standing or to emphasise the character’s importance.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, ‘pattens’ (wooden soles that were attached to shoes) were popular with both men and women, to protect their footwear from the mud and other undesirable debris often found in the filthy, unpaved streets. By 1400, ‘chopines’ (platform shoes said to have originated in Turkey) were to be found throughout Europe, some reaching an incredible height of 20 inches (500mm) and requiring the wearer to use sticks to enable them to walk. Famous English playwright William Shakespeare made mention of the height of such shoes in Hamlet, where the Prince greets one of the adolescent boys who normally played female parts by saying: “Your ladyship is nearer heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine.” The Venetians particularly made chopines into a status symbol, for women to boast of their wealth and social standing.

By Royal assent

Legend has it that Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), Queen Consort of French King Henry II, was of a short stature. In order to compete with the King’s favourite mistress Diane de Poitiers (who was significantly taller) and to give herself what she hoped would be a more alluring way of walking, it is said that Catherine began to wear shoes with two-inch (50mm) heels hidden beneath her long skirts. Apparently, the secret of her heeled shoes became common knowledge, and the style gained instant fashion appeal as it was associated with having a privileged position in life. By the end of the century, these shoes were popular with both men and women, and gave rise to the English phrase ‘well-heeled’, meaning someone with authority and riches.

During the following centuries, many women recognised the attraction that higher heels could provide, and shoemakers were only too pleased to design footwear to fulfil this lucrative demand. Puritan colonists who had fled religious persecution in Europe and settled in Massachusetts observed this growing trend and enacted a law which prevented women from wearing high heels in order to ‘ensnare a man’ under the threat of being tried in court as a witch (and possibly facing the death penalty).

From the 1790s onwards, the height of heels as accepted fashion fell, then grew, only to become lower once again. In the mid 19th century, Victorian society began to view a woman’s high-heeled shoe as a symbol of femininity. As a result, shoes were even being made with six-inch heels, although there were still many critics who attacked the whole concept as being a female plot ‘to catch the unwary male’. The first US factory making high heel shoes reportedly opened in 1888.

Northampton Museum

A gold-coloured Cromwell shoe with a five-inch plaster-covered heel, c.1889

In the early decades of the 20th century, shoes were often quite low, although slender Louis heels gained popularity briefly during the 1920s when rising hemlines encouraged more stylish footwear. The revival of the high-heeled shoe began in the post-war 1950s when Christian Dior and Roger Vivier led the way among designers to develop a new look. Together, they produced a shoe with a low-cut vamp and slender heel – called a ‘stiletto’.

The name ‘stiletto’ is derived from a type of long, slender blade with a needle-like point, viewed as similar in profile to the heel of the shoe – the description of such footwear first being recorded in the early 1930s. Not all slim high heels merit the description stiletto – to use the name, a shoe is generally expected to have a very thin heel, sometimes defined as having a diameter at the ground of less than 10mm (slightly less than half an inch). The stiletto heel arrived with new technology which permitted the use of a supporting metal shaft or stem embedded into the heel, rather than designers relying on weaker materials – such as wood – that demanded a wide heel. Stiletto heel heights can vary tremendously, from 25mm (1 inch) to 250mm (10 inches) or more; those 50mm or shorter being called kitten heels.

During the 1950s, footwear designers recognised that women were tired of the drab wartime fashions of the previous decade. Stilettos quickly provided the answer.

The pioneers

Andre Perugia (1893-1977) began designing shoes in 1906 and is one of the men associated with the first popular stiletto design. Of Italian descent, Perugia was the son of a shoemaker. However, at the age of 16, he decided that his father's styles of footwear were too old fashioned, so he decided to pursue a new career in shoe design. He opened his first boutique in Paris, and, although it is unlikely that he actually invented the stiletto, Perugia is credited with the innovative idea of using an inner metal column for solid support within a very narrow heel.

Although Perugia’s contribution to women’s fashion footwear is undeniable, it is Italian designer Roger Vivier (1907-1998) who has entered the history books as the developer of the stiletto heel, and using a thin rod of steel within the heel. He began working with Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (a contemporary of Coco Chanel) during the 1930s, and then collaborated with Christian Dior for more than a decade.

In the 1950s, Vivier introduced the ‘winkle-picker’, a pointed toe style of shoe, with a spike heel that often exceeded 80mm in height. Dior’s ‘New Look’ movement was said to bring emphasis to the ankle and foot, and after the first of his designs was showcased in 1952, Vivier became a significant contributor to the overall seasonal collections.

Another Italian-born designer, Salvatore Ferragamo, is also recognised for his use of the stiletto heel. Gaining experience in his early years running a boutique and practising traditional shoemaking methods, Ferregamo soon began receiving recognition when he helped with costume design for a number of well-known actors and actresses, included Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

The extremely slender stiletto heels of the late 1950s and early 1960s were, in some instances, no more than 5mm in diameter for most of their length, although they sometimes flared out a little at the top-piece. In the early 1960s, the toes of the shoes with stiletto heels often became slender and elongated as well. As a result of the overall sharpness of outline, it was customary for the whole shoe to be referred to as a stiletto.

Messe Duesseldorf

Shoes with stiletto heels regularly feature in footwear designers’ new collections

Fashions come and go, and so it was for stiletto heels. Although their popularity waned as the 1960s headed towards the 1970s, many women adamantly refused to give up wearing them, even when it became increasingly hard to find them in high street stores.

As part of a minor revival, Manolo Blahnik released a version of the stiletto heel in 1974, which he called the ‘Needle’. During the next decade, stilettos were often purchased in an attempt to soften the masculine cut of the so-called ‘power suits’ of the day.

Nevertheless, stiletto heels faced serious competition in the 1970s when shoes with high, thick, block heels and often platforms became the rage. However, a major comeback occurred in 2000, when young women adopted the style for improving their office clothing or adding a feminine touch to casual wear, including jeans.

Northampton Museum

High, thick block heels have been popular since the 1970s

Pain to gain?

Ever since the birth of high-heeled footwear, complaints had been raised that skeletal and muscular problems can be caused if such shoes are worn excessively – an issue that will be explored later in this article. Despite these problems, the popularity of shoes with high heels remains undiminished – evidenced by regular appearances at the major international footwear shows, their continued appearance in heavyweight designers’ latest collections and, not least of all, being seen on women’s feet around the world. Why? As mentioned at the outset, high-heeled shoes are said to create the illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and a greater overall height, while altering the wearer's posture and gait. Image, of course, counts for a great deal.

The argument heats up

In recent years, more women than ever around the world have vociferously declared their opposition to high heels. This is primarily based on the aforementioned discomfort and risk of health problems, and a reaction against the expectation within some sectors of society that high-heeled footwear must be worn in certain circumstances.

For example, in December 2015, 27-year-old Nicola Thorp was sent home from work without pay for refusing to wear shoes with a two- to four-inch heel at her job as a temporary receptionist in a London finance company. According to Ms Thorp, she was expected to do a nine-hour shift on her feet escorting clients to meeting rooms. On asking if she could wear the pair of flat shoes she had worn to the office, she claimed that she was told to go and buy a pair of high heels.

This incident resulted in considerable worldwide publicity. This led to the firm changing its policy, and publishing new guidelines which state that all female employees can wear plain flat shoes or plain court shoes as they prefer. Ms Thorp then launched a petition calling on the British government to make it illegal to require women to wear high-heeled footwear at work, which was signed by more than 150,000 people. A debate was then held in Parliament, after which members of the House decided that the government should change the law to prevent employers having the right to make such a demand. However, the government rejected the petition, arguing that existing legislation was adequate.

Nevertheless, many women choose to – and indeed, enjoy – wearing high heels. Some of these women decide that the high-heeled shoe still has a very powerful role to play in 21st century business.

One 25-year-old woman wanted to be taken more seriously at the small New York private equity company where she works. The advice she was given by more experienced female colleagues was to wear high heels, so she decided to wear four-inch stilettos to all the meetings she attends. However, these shoes are not worn all the time – she keeps them under her desk until they are required.

“Of course they’re uncomfortable,” she admits. “The trick is you put them on right before you go in, and when you do, you feel like a boss. I’m bound to a career in heels,” she adds. “I don’t mind it. Everybody wears heels. It’s just a convention – it’s like wearing a tie.”

It is therefore evident that in certain professions – particularly those that are traditionally male-dominated – there is still pressure to wear shoes that may be painful to wear. For many women working in such fields as fashion consulting, finance and law, high-heeled shoes are often just part of what is still considered to be a ‘necessary’ look. At one corporate law firm in New York, for instance, most of the female lawyers wear high heels – particularly when they are in court because, they say, this makes them feel more ‘professional’ and ‘polished’. It has been suggested that some 30 per cent of women in the USA still wear high-heeled shoes to work.

© dusanpetkovic |

For many women working in such fields as consulting, finance and law, high-heeled shoes are often just part of what is still considered to be a ‘necessary’ look

Not just for lawyers

While in some professions and in some lands, women still feel that wearing high heels will help their careers, there are others who enjoy the very opportunity to slip into high-heeled footwear for purely personal pleasure. In fact, it has often been said that high heels are the ‘ultimate feminine accessory’.

One wearer of high-heeled shoes says: “I think women like to wear high heels simply to feel good about themselves. It's no secret that putting on a really pretty pair makes a woman feel confident and sexy. I think advertising and media has a bit to do with it, but I also think it's just as much about feeling glamorous and sort of transforming oneself if only for just one ‘glam’ moment.”

Dr Ed Morrison, a psychology lecturer at the UK’s University of Plymouth, highlighted that wearing high heels changes the way that a woman walks by making her hips sway more and taking shorter steps. According to Dr Morrison, this change in gait makes her appear more attractive.

“When you’re wearing high heels it makes women walk in a more feminine way,” says Dr Morrison. “I don’t think women are consciously aware of it. They don’t think ‘I want to walk like a woman today’, they have just found they get more attention when they wear heels. It’s probably on a subconscious idea.”

Asking female members of staff at SATRA revealed why many wear high-heeled shoes at certain times. Responses included: “I like the height they give me and I feel more ladylike”, “They make me feel more elegant”, and “I love them because they are different and often prettier than day-to-day boots.”

High heels add height to the wearer, so why do tall women also choose these shoes? The desire to be feminine has been suggested as quite a common reason, even though height may apparently be viewed by some as an unfeminine quality in a woman.

“I love wearing high-heeled shoes. There. I said it. I love wearing high heels,” one woman remarked when asked why she chose them over flats.

“My culture’s currency of feminine power is in sexuality and attractiveness,” said another wearer of high-heeled footwear. “Knowing that heels were most likely destroying my feet, knees, hips, and back didn’t stop me from adopting the practice of wearing heels every day in college. As long as I could perform femininity and turn a few heads, I felt a sense of power – and of relief. I don’t know if it’s something that I, or the legions of us who torture ourselves in pumps, stilettos, and platforms every day, will ever truly give up.”

While some responders to the SATRA in-house survey chose to wear their high heels every day at work, most female members of staff only wear such footwear at weekends or for special occasions, such as for nights out or at weddings.

Moving away from heels

Some women find wearing high-heeled shoes easy, and can enjoy the whole experience. To other women in their 20s and 30s, however, wearing high heels is what the bosses do, but they are not following in their footsteps. Attractive flat shoes have made their way onto the fashion show runway and into the office. Even flat shoes for brides and bridesmaids are gaining in popularity.

A study by a UK-based consumer research company covering the 12 months to May 2016 showed that more British women bought trainers (sneakers) than high-heeled shoes for the first time. Almost 37 per cent of UK women who bought footwear purchased trainers, while 33 per cent chose shoes with a heel. By contrast, during the previous year the number of women who bought trainers was equal to those purchasing high heels – at 35 per cent. Responders to the survey suggested that 59 per cent of female footwear buyers chose to wear flat shoes, compared to 12 per cent who preferred high-heeled footwear.

The same study revealed that consumers aged 35 to 44 have become the main buyers of women’s trainers, proving that the trend is no longer limited to younger purchasers.

Considering SATRA’s female members of staff once again, most had fewer pairs of high heels in their wardrobe than flats or trainers. Some of these women had decided to give up on high-heeled shoes completely, mainly due to the pain and discomfort they have experienced when wearing this style.

Interestingly, even in business sectors in Britain where there has traditionally been a degree of ‘power dressing’, it has become more acceptable not to wear high heels. Many women who gave up wearing this style of shoe reported that none of their colleagues even seemed to notice.

Indicating that change is in the air, since 2015 even some Barbie dolls‘ feet have been shaped to wear flat shoes, after more than 56 years of having to don high-heeled footwear.

Undoubtedly, seeing television and movie stars – as well as popular singers – wearing high heels has influenced generations of young women to wear this style of footwear. However, even some celebrities are publicly turning to flat shoes.

‘Sex and the City’ was a major US TV series which had two spin-off feature films. It had been said that if any woman was asked for the one detail she took away from Sex and the City, she would mention high-heeled shoes. However, actress Kristin Davis, who played the character ‘Charlotte’, later talked about her regret that the show may have encouraged women to wear high heels.

Effects on the wearer’s feet

According to a number of medical studies published in recent years, high-heeled footwear can cause health problems if worn too frequently. These include damage to the ankle joints, Achilles tendon (which may shorten and stiffen with prolonged wear), balls of the feet, knees (because high heels cause the knees to bend constantly, which, according to some doctors, could lead to osteoarthritis later in life). The wearer’s back may also be affected – high-heeled footwear is said to decrease the spine’s ability to absorb shock, which may lead to back pain, as well as possibly causing the vertebrae of the lower back to compress. Other foot problems may include corns, calluses, hammer toe, bunions, Morton’s neuroma and plantar fasciitis.

Nevertheless, women can take steps to avoid such problems by not wearing these shoes every day. In addition, health experts recommend that footwear with thicker heels be worn rather than stilettos, in order to distribute weight more evenly across the feet. If not already incorporated, the addition of gel-type inserts if the fit of the shoe allows can help to cushion the wearer’s feet and absorb shock.

The psychology of high heels

As already mentioned in this article, one of the main reasons why women wear high-heeled shoes is because such footwear can help them to feel more feminine. French researchers recently ran an experiment to ascertain if men find women more attractive as the heel height of their shoes increases.

A 19-year-old woman with a clipboard was stationed in front of a high-street store. She is described in the report as wearing a modest black skirt and white blouse covered by a black jacket, and fashionable black leather shoes. During the survey, she wore three different heel heights – flat, medium or high. When unaccompanied male pedestrians who appeared to be between the ages of 25 and 50 walked by, she asked if they would like to participate in a four-minute survey. A total of 90 men were approached, with the young women changing her shoes after every ten conversations. The researchers observed the men’s willingness to take the survey – and reported that when flat shoes were being worn, 47 per cent of the men were willing to take the survey, with 63 per cent of the men taking part when medium-height heels were worn. However, when the young woman donned high heels, 83 per cent of men were willing to take the survey.

Obviously this was a very small and simple experiment, which did not ask the men why they stopped. However, the figures do suggest that there is some truth in the belief than men may be subconsciously more attracted to women wearing high-heeled shoes.

Into the future

The feminist movement of the 1970s insisted that high-heeled footwear was demeaning to women, and the popularity of these styles appeared to be under threat. Nevertheless, they remained firm favourites with many women, and still well into the 21st century, such shoes are viewed by many women as an opportunity to gain height, give the impression of power and authority, feel confident, feminine and desirable, and find great pleasure in the simple joy of wearing an attractive pair of shoes.

Despite the apparent health risks, a positive view of high heels on the part of many women is evident by the vast quantity purchased each year. Whatever an individual’s reason for wearing high-heeled shoes, there is no doubt that the popularity of this style is enduring, and will probably last for many years to come.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 8 of the February 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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