It was during World War II that the ideal of a woman in heels became an extraordinarily sexualized image in the United States. Pin-up girls that soldiers may have posted in their overseas barracks began to showcase “a real disconnect between the fashionable feminine ideal and the desirable feminine ideal” (“Sex, Power, and High Heels: An Interview with Shoe Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack,” 2010). Curvaceous and soft-looking girls became the apex of feminine sexuality, while “real women” – the wives, mothers, sisters, etc. – back home put on their day-to-day shoes and went to work for the war effort.
The once male-dominated jobs that women dutifully filled during World War II often required standing for hours on end and ease of mobility, and thus needed their shoes to be a word dreaded by all fashionistas: sensible. Maintaining a full shift at a factory or manufacturing job would have proved difficult if not impossible wearing anything but flat shoes with good support. So, as Rosie the Riveter encouraged middle class women to do what working class women had been doing for centuries, she inadvertently encouraged them to temporarily lay their dress shoes in the back of their closets.
With the end of the war came the end of the labor shortage, and women, most notably middle class women, returned to their nuclear families and the idyllic Leave It To Beaver lifestyle reigned supreme. It was during the 1950s that the iconic stiletto teetered onto the scene. Although there could be evidence of an earlier form, shoe curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack credits the invention of the modern stiletto to designer Roger Vivier, and dates the first pair between 1952 and 1954 (“Sex, Power, and High Heels,” 2010). The stiletto is nothing short of an architectural feat. Meaning “thin-bladed knife,” the thin, long heel of a stiletto – often only half a centimeter thick and five inches tall or more – is a dangerous and highly impractical shoe. Uneven sidewalks, water grates, tile floors, and dirt all wreak havoc on stiletto wearers, who must teach themselves to walk in such heels to avoid near certain calamity. However, as many advocates will happily point out, their purpose is not practicality, but rather a certain aesthetic. Stilettos are ornamental shoes, meant to enhance the stature, power, and sexuality of the wearer. Television law shoes often feature high-powered women wearing somewhat masculine suits paired with killer heels, juxtaposing the patriarchal corporate world with the moderately mysterious and feared one of women’s sexuality.
The sudden popularity of the stiletto and the return to the male-dominated work world in which women served as housewives and mothers is not a coincidence. The “father knows best” middle class American family man allowed his wife the luxury of not having to be on her feet for long periods of time, and the means by which she could adequately decorate herself with shoes. Shoes became the iconic feminine accessory, replacing pearls, white gloves, and hats, while adding a daily nod to the carnal notions of men, whose erotic obsession with high heels remained unchanged.
Over the next few decades, we see heels rise and fall in day-to-day fashion as heated debates surround feminist implications of the eroticized footwear, yet we see extreme consistency in the footwear featured in men’s erotica. On the streets, women of the 1950s and early 1960s were slaves to heels. Heels gave way to the child-like Mary Jane shoes and Keds in the mid-60s, which evolved into psychedelic boots and daring platform shoes in the 1970s, and eventually returned to heels in a quintessential decade for women’s shoes, the 1980s. Thanks to feminist and civil rights movements begun in the mid-60s and fought hard for in the 1970s, women once again became indispensable workers. However, unlike forty years earlier, when women dominated the work world, they now had to share it with men who not only had often had more experience, but less stigma surrounding their qualifications. Balanced precariously between a flat shoe and a towering heel, women found themselves smack dab in the middle of a very uncomfortable judgment: masculinize the feminine to compete and survive in working America and potentially compromise female identity, or hyper-sexualize the feminine to wield salacious power to the potential detriment of female credibility?
As aforementioned, “Throughout the course of the 20th century, the high heel goes in and out of women’s fashion, but it never goes out of style in men’s erotica,” perpetuating eroticism in women’s dress via male-interest magazines. “Each time fashion rejects the high heel and then reintroduces it, the way it’s reintroduced brings it closer to how it’s been represented in erotica” (“Sex, Power, and High Heels,” 2010). During the 1980s, this trend was also reflected in women’s fashion magazines, particularly in catalogues like Victoria’s Secret (founded 1977), which could easily be confused for male erotica. In response, the high heel offered to working women became increasingly complex. In the 1980s, heel choice availability boomd. Width and height of heels replicated the feminist debates in society, offering kitten heels for the more conservative women, wider heels for the more practical, and ever-thinning spike heels for the daringly feminine, encouraged and promoted via advertisements in Marie Claire (f. 1937), Cosmopolitan (f. 1988), and Mademoiselle (f. 1938). Semmelhack argues that “the pornographic aesthetic that is a constant in men’s magazines increasingly informs women’s magazines,” creating an ever-increasing parallel between women’s magazine and male-interest erotica. Such tension is continually fraught with feminist concerns and viewed triumphs. On the one hand, there is a persuasive argument that the high heel, particularly the impractical stiletto, limits just about everything a woman can do while simultaneously increasingly her sex appeal, suggesting that a woman with limited mobility and self-advocacy is desirable. Some heels, like those found in stores like Frederick’s of Hollywood, are so risqué that they can even be considered pieces of lingerie and inappropriate for work wear. On the other hand rests the argument that high heels command authority. They add physical stature and a certain je ne sais quoi that makes all the members of the old boy’s club want to drop to their knees. Indeed, women make a conscious choice to continue to wear high heels, albeit with roughly the same amount of misogynic encouragement by which women continue to shave their legs. This choice comes in contrast with contemporary medical reports that frequent wearing of heels can be permanently damaging, and often at the expense and personal pain of the woman who wears them.
Who benefits from the intricate relationship of a woman and her shoes, and who, if anyone, is disenfranchised? When designer Manolo Blahnik was asked if he ever felt sorry for the women who walked in his dangerously thin heels, he responded: “Oh, my god, how could I feel sorry for them? Sorry. Sorry for who? They love it.” This high priest of heels is known for his notoriously painful shoes, ones that require training the feet to adjust to his designs, yet women pay a minimum price of $445 for a pair of his shoes, more often paying between $700 and $800. Could it be that shoes, in their myriad complexities as cultural and ideological markers, serve to enhance and simultaneously alienate both sexes?