5,000 years on, high heels are given the boot

Heart and sole: High heels were first worn by ancient Egyptians over 5,000 years ago.

Should we mourn the demise of high heels? In a landmark show at London Fashion Week, Victoria Beckham spun heads with a high heel-free catwalk. Trends suggest they could be on the way out.

“How can you live the high life if you do not wear the high heels?” once quipped designer Sonia Rykiel. If this year’s London Fashion Week is anything to go by, high heels may not be so essential after all.

That, at least, was the impression after Victoria Beckham’s homecoming show on Sunday. Her latest collection had all the glamour you would expect: all-white satin tuxedos, bright gold brocade jeans and silk parachute dresses. But one Fashion Week staple was conspicuously absent: high heels.

“I wanted to create a collection my customers could really relate to,” Beckham commented afterwards — “everything is really wearable.”

She may be onto something. Last year, sales of high heels declined by 12% while sales of women’s trainers soared by 37%. “Social mores are changing,” says retail analyst Katie Smith.

This decline is the latest twist in a surprising story of style that stretches back thousands of years.

Murals dating back to 3500 BC show Egyptians wearing high heels during religious ceremonies. They were common in ancient Greek theatre too. Actors wore raised shoes called kothorni to show the class of their character — higher shoes meant higher status.

From the 10th century, Persian noblemen wore heels for horse riding. This trend spread to Europe, and by the 17th century, aristocratic men regularly wore them as a sign of their superiority. Louis XIV was famous for his five-inch red-bottomed heels (similar to the Louboutins Cardi B famously sung about).

The shoes only became a symbol of femininity after the Enlightenment. From then, 20th century mass production and high-heeled pinups like Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe popularised them for a modern generation of women.

However, a cultural shift seems to be in motion. Recently, Cannes Film Festival organisers were criticised when they insisted women wear heels to film screenings. Expecting women to wear them is sexist, some argue. After all, Christian Louboutin himself once said: “the core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men.”

Should we mourn the decline of high heels?

On point

Absolutely not, some argue. High-heeled shoes are an outdated symbol of everyday sexism in which women are held to oppressive beauty standards to satisfy the male gaze. Then there is the chronic pain and foot injury they cause. The day when nobody wears them any longer will be one of celebration.

We should not encourage their demise, others respond. For decades many women have felt empowered by wearing high heels. Declaring them sexist falsely implies that women are complicit in their own oppression. Instead, we should celebrate all aspects of femininity — high-heeled or not.

You Decide

  1. Is fashion important?
  2. Are high-heeled shoes sexist?

Activities

  1. What do you think people will be wearing in 500 years time? Draw a sketch of your predictions. Show your drawing to the class and explain your predictions. Why do you think fashion will have changed in this way?
  2. Pick one item of clothing that is often worn by people today. Do some research into its history. How far back does the item go? How has it changed over time? Does the change reflect major changes in society?

Some People Say...

“I firmly believe that with the right footwear one can rule the world.”

Bette Midler

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A survey by the American Podiatric Medical Association found that 72% of women wear high-heeled shoes (39% wear them daily, while 33% wear them less often). Of the respondents, 82% reported wearing high heels “for fashion or style,” while 73% wear them “to complete my professional attire.” Only 39% of women surveyed said they wear heels to appear taller.
What do we not know?
We do not know how the downward trend in sales of high heels will change in the future. Luxury brands of shoes are still highly desirable, and many women still wear heels for leisure and work. We do not know if Victoria Beckham’s high heel-free collection will catch on in the fashion industry. While her models wore flat shoes, Beckham herself was wearing six-inch stilettos.

Word Watch

Brocade
A rich fabric woven with a raised pattern, typically with gold or silver thread.
Mores
The characteristic customs and conventions of a society.
Kothorni
Shoes with wooden or cork bases up to four inches thick. They were not normally worn offstage.
Cardi B
The singer raps about “red bottom” Louboutin heels in her hit song Bodak Yellow. Searches for the luxury shoes increased by 217% after the song was released.
Enlightenment
European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Philosophy of the time emphasised rationality and practicality as distinctly male traits, meaning that men distanced themselves from impractical high-heeled shoes.
Betty Grable
American actress, dancer and model. Her iconic pin-up poster was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential Photographs of All Time.
Marilyn Monroe
She once said: “I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot.”
Christian Louboutin
Fashion designer and creator of high-end stiletto shoes.

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