Historians often talk about hemlines but it’s shoes (and their elevated soles) that are the real social barometers. Heels are where fashion and politics converge. From Louis xiv’s four-inch talons to mid-20th-century stilettos and the 1970s platform, the heel reflects social attitudes and ideas of status, utility and sex.
It is telling then that the classic high heel, particularly on the court shoe, is noticeably absent from the runway today – and, perhaps more crucially, from the feet of those who sit beside it.
Paris Fashion Week was always marked by coteries of editors navigating Faubourg Saint-Honoré with the cautious gait of Philippe Petit in Man on Wire. Yet the fashion set have ditched the precipitous heel and are now striding the pavements in flats, chunky boots or en baskets (trainers). For the latter, the more podiatrist-approved, the better. Balenciaga’s bulky Triple S trainer or APC’s prescription-worthy kicks can nowadays be plausibly worn with an evening dress.
Preserving your metatarsal arch has become fashionable. But the demise of the heel also has a political dimension: the physical impairment that comes with heels is at odds with fourth-wave feminism and its emphasis on equality, independence and strength. “At the moment it’s about being firm-footed, grounded, androgynous,” says Georgina Goodman, a shoe designer who is an associate lecturer on the MA in footwear at the London College of Fashion. “The heel feels decadent. It just feels wrong at the moment – you need to be able to walk.”
Goodman made shoes for Alexander McQueen and designed one of the highest pair of heels ever seen on a catwalk – the Armadillo boots – but today her collection only features slip-on flats, trainers and high-tops. “Over the past few years I’ve seen a steady move towards comfort. It’s a move towards technical innovation too; sports technology is making its way into the mainstream.”
Goodman doesn’t think that the flat shoe has the political intent of a defiant Doc Marten boot in the 1970s but does feel that the trend for grounded soles has sprung from a political context. “It’s an androgynous movement that is being led by a very young generation who are all talking about being gender neutral,” she says. “It’s about saying, ‘We can be anything.’ Brands are having styles that go right across from size two to size 43.”
“Killer heels” are no longer status symbols. In fact, they can be the objects of derision. The sight of Melania Trump walking across a rain-soaked runway to board Air Force One in four-inch heels to visit hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico last October became an emblem of a lofty and unrealistic first lady with very little independence.
The high-heeled court shoe suddenly feels like the realm of trophy wives and ribbon-snipping royals. It implies that there is a car waiting or a large taxi bill in the offing. Instead, the sturdy low-heel boots that Maria Grazia Chiuri chose for Dior’s autumn/winter collection (inspired by student protest) summed up a more autonomous, practical elegance. You can run for a bus, flee from a mugger or walk home in the snow.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, who curates the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, argues that the heel has never wielded any actual power. “What kind of power is it?” she says. “Power through sexual desirability can’t possibly lie with the person. In any case, if power is really signified by high heels then men would be happy to wear them.”
Semmelhack’s book, Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe, tracks the heel from its origin in 10th-century Persia (where it was worn by male horsemen) to the courts of Louis xiv (who wore red-soled four-inch heels), through the Second World War and to the present day. She argues that heels were first sported by men and adopted by daring women who donned male garb. It was during the Enlightenment that fashion “was pressed into service” to divide men and women.
“Heels became synonymous with fragility, irrationality. They signified women’s desirability, their idiocy,” says Semmelhack. More recently they were taken up by pornographers. “[The high heel] is about hyper-sexualisation. There’s a reason we wouldn’t be comfortable with the Queen of England or, say, Hilary Clinton wearing a high court shoe.”
Semmelhack believes that the recent convergence of comfort, fashion and feminism may have truly dislodged the high heel’s footing. “I think it’s possible that the MeToo movement and the increased status of sneakers may really challenge the position of the high heel,” she says. “There’s a sense that when you see a woman walking in high heels she is vulnerable.”
There is evidence that this shift in attitude is changing the retail landscape. While certain demographics remain more committed to the heel than others, in some markets the classic high heel is stumbling. According to the NPD Group’s Retail Tracking Service, sales of high heels declined 11 per cent in the US in 2017 (trainers increased by 37 per cent). In the UK, Christian Louboutin’s profits plummeted from £5.8m in 2016 to £1.1m in 2017. Designers are changing how they balance their collections. “While shoemakers used to portion 80 per cent of their collections to the high heel, today it’s more like 20 per cent and the rest is flats and mid-heights,” says Goodman.
Certain brands have seized the moment. Utilitarian shoemaker Teva has seen a surge in popularity: its Velcro sandal has been featured in other labels’ catwalk shows and the brand has benefited from collaborations with agenda-setting retailers such as Opening Ceremony.
Meanwhile, the 244-year-old German sandals-maker Birkenstock has seen a swell in business in recent years. The Neustadt-based company, which pioneered orthopaedic footwear in the 19th century, sold 25 million pairs of shoes last year and reportedly posted record profits of €70m in 2016. The brand has gained a hallowed place in the industry: it is loved by legions of sandals-and-socks stalwarts while also being coveted by the fashion set.
“In the past decade the comfort and general feeling of wellbeing that Birkenstock stands for has simply been discovered by more and more people,” says Yvonne Piu, CMO of Birkenstock, who has helped oversee collaborations with the likes of fashion designer Rick Owens. “In earlier decades, footwear did not predominantly consider wellbeing, comfort or quality, so women were more likely to favour and wear high heels. In today’s society of Generation Y, both men and women are hungry for exactly these values. The urban youth have started viewing Birkenstock from a different angle.”
Piu says that the Birkenstock team has experimented with heels and platforms but decided against them. “We determined that it goes to the impairment of functionality and we waived implementation.”
Heels have not disappeared from the red carpet altogether (though last year the Israeli actress Gal Gadot did her Wonder Woman premiere and subsequent tour in flat sandals). For many workers, court shoes are still considered office attire. In fact, despite all the talk of female empowerment, a 1.5-inch minimum heel stipulation still exists in many employee dress codes, including for airlines.
No one expects high heels to disappear altogether; they are good for dancing and often give women a posture and gait that makes them feel glamorous. Yet super-high, unstable heels that restrict movement and inflict pain do not reflect the general mood in a post MeToo era.
Flats are in fashion but they are also indicative of a social shift. Just as women donned sporty Oxfords during the emancipated 1920s and a blocky low heel during the Second World War, the grounded, ready-for-anything androgynous shoe embodies the contemporary zeitgeist – and modern necessity.