Bring out the mace, brush off your mortar board, polish the vice-chancellor’s gilded throne. It’s conferment ceremony season again. And amid the manufactured medievalism and forced formality, there’s one very contemporary feature of this time-honoured ritual. Every year, a growing contingent of soberly gowned female graduands will totter, stagger, mince and occasionally stumble across the stage in increasingly exotic footwear – peeping from beneath the drab, monkish garb in glorious defiance.
Whether they’re serious chemistry students or flamboyant fashion designers, more and more of these bright young women appear to define their stance and their identity through their shoes. And as someone who still treasures a magnificent collection of killer stilettos and who has more than once crashed into lamp posts in my over-elevated platforms, I know just how they feel. Shoes are just fabulous: the more dangerous, the more desirable. But they’re also a somewhat shameful indulgence. So how can any self-respecting 21st-century feminist allow herself to fall prey to a fashion item that is so manifestly painful, disfiguring and impractical?
That’s one of the mysteries that the Victoria and Albert Museum aims to address in its latest exhibition: Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (“Hot shoe shuffle”, Culture, 18 June). And while it is most certainly a celebration of the glory, the variety and the sheer inventiveness and vitality of shoes, the show doesn’t stint on their undersole: pain and oppression. Among the examples of just how much shoes can contort, disfigure or maim is the cruellest exhibit of all: a pair of tiny Chinese silk slippers for the bound feet of women who could barely walk.
It’s no coincidence that one of the earliest versions of Cinderella, the most ubiquitous of fairy tales, originated in 9th-century China, where the tiny foot has long been considered the exemplar of female grace and beauty. But we still squeeze our feet into unwieldy shapes. Some women inject them so that they won’t be such agony when they hobble and totter, and some even have surgery to taper and refine them, all in the quest for a slim, tiny, perfect foot. Women are just so many Ugly Sisters, cutting off toes and heels in order to slip the daintiest of feet into that elusive glass slipper.
And today’s most irrational instrument of shoe torture is, of course, the high heel – lavishly represented among the V&A’s 250 treasures. Here is the Vivienne Westwood design that caused Naomi Campbell’s tumble at the Paris fashion show in 1993, and there is architect Zaha Hadid’s six-inch “Nova” shoe, based on a cantilever design.
These ludicrously exaggerated creations are clearly destined for the brave, the foolish, the catwalkers or those so massively rich that they don’t ever have to do anything as vulgar as walking. And that’s one reason why we’re prepared to be crippled and hobbled by stilettos. They are signifiers of privilege – and power.
Throughout history, women have sought footwear to make them taller. Greek sculptures dating as far back as the 6th century BC show women wearing elevated sandals. And in 15th-century Spain and Italy, fashionable ladies favoured “chopines”, with platforms as high as 50cm.
High heels as we might recognise them were introduced to the French court of the 16th century by Catherine de’ Medici and eagerly adopted by noblewomen across Europe. Height, it seems, confers status: the wearer can look down on lower classes and stand out from the rest of the crowd.
These days, high heels are also an assertion of equality, allowing us to stand shoulder to shoulder with men. At last, the click-clack of stilettos on hard surfaces has come to mean the approaching of the boss rather than the secretary.
But high heels have also for centuries been favoured by courtesans. Indeed, many of our most cumbersome and damaging fashions emerged from the bordello. And this could be the clue to another, more potent reason why so many women are prepared to suffer for their fancy footwear.
One section of the V&A exhibition, “Seduction”, features shoes so erotically charged that many, like the teeteringly high pieces from those kings of elevation Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo, come dangerously and sometimes explicitly close to brothel wear. Christian Louboutin, for example, collaborated with the film director David Lynch to create his “Fetish” collection of shoes that were designed to be unwearable. “Shoes equals sex,” declared Francesco Russo, whose design for Yves Saint Laurent’s “Tribute” sandal was actually based on a pole dancer’s shoe, according to Helen Persson’s book of the exhibition.
Everyone who has fallen prey to beautiful shoes knows that the appeal is a kind of seduction – flirty, funny, frivolous, dangerous yet irresistible. And you don’t have to be a whip-wielding dominatrix or a dagger-heeled lap-dancer to recognise the surge of power and pleasure that comes from the stripper stiletto. In her study of 66 women under the age of 50, Maria Cerruto, a temporary professor of surgery at the University of Verona, found that even a moderate heel relaxed electrical activity in the pelvic area by up to 15 per cent, leading to greater stamina and better sex. No wonder so many women find that wearing high heels makes them feel liberated.
So there’s no need to feel guilty about our love of high heels. Some may see them as a symbol of oppression, but they are also a standard-bearer for feminism. “Fetish fashion is popular with women”, argues Elizabeth Wilson in her landmark history of fashion, Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (1985), “because it adds the idea of power to femininity. Another word for power is freedom…What Vogue calls the ‘strong and sexy’ look has become the paradigm of contemporary fashion. This is a direct result of women’s liberation.”
Sally Feldman is senior fellow in creative industries at the University of Westminster.