Olson: Sex, status and the stiletto

As a fashion historian, I feel it is my duty to own around 120 pairs of shoes.

I have shoes in every conceivable color, height and style, for every season and every possible activity. I buy several additional pairs every year at vintage stores, department stores, Italians selling streetside in Rome, Goodwill. I have mules and Mary Janes and cowboy boots, ballet flats, t-straps and sandals.

But my favourite are the stilettos, my pointy-toed, needle-heeled shoes which automatically make me feel more dressed, more powerful, more ready for anything. I can argue with my mother, berate the cable company, strut across campus. And more importantly, pretend that I am Audrey Hepburn in Charade.

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OLSON

Although high heels in some form have been around in Western culture since ancient Greece, the stiletto – that needle-thin high heel enjoying such a resurgence now – did not really emerge until the 1950s. The chunkiness of the 1940s female shoe was due to the social and economic rigors of war; comfortable and sensible shoes were the norm. But Dior’s scandalous New Look dresses of 1947 (with full skirts using an excess of expensive material) called for a newer, more elegant heel, and by 1948, the clunky, low-heeled shoe was definitely out.

The stiletto heel has an origin shrouded in mystery.

While shoe designer André Perugia was the first to create an evening sandal which featured two very thin straps and a metal heel (in 1951), the design was never intended for general use, and most credit French shoe designer Roger Vivier (1907-98) with defining and refining the architecture of this heel. Vivier, who designed shoes for Dior in the 1950s, called it the aiguille or ‘needle heel.’ (He never used the term ‘stiletto,’ although by 1952 American Vogue was using the word to describe Vivier’s shoes).

But the stiletto heel as we know it today (a thin, tapering heel) is the stiletto as it ultimately became – not the stiletto invented in the 1950s. These early stilettos, 2-5 inches in height, were somewhat chunky and made of interlocking blocks of wood, necessary for structural soundness (the higher and thinner a wooden heel, the more likely it was to snap).

Even if it was only a few inches high, the new heel released women from the utilitarian fashions of wartime and launched them into the modern era of fashionable consumption. Women loved the self-assured look the stiletto gave them, adding height without a loss of perspective; men were attracted by the ‘exclamation point’ heel, which sharpened their fantasies. Soon women were wearing what was originally conceived of as an evening shoe to shop in, drive and run errands, making heel strength all the more necessary.

The stiletto as we know it could not in fact have existed without the mid-20th century steel industry. In 1955, Italian shoe designers began to put steel inserts in plastic heels, making the stiletto less prone to snapping and breaking — which meant that heels became higher and thinner as the 1950s wore on. In the early 1960s, this technology fueled a new shoe design: a long thin upper with a pointed toe, the heel “tapered to a rapier-like point.” This was one of the longest-running and ultimately most successful shoes of the 20th and 21st centuries.

I have several pairs in my own closet.

Despite its popularity, the stiletto heel quickly gained an antisocial reputation.

“The stiletto is the high heel in its most extreme, modern, and dangerous form” and there was always an association between injury or death and the piercing quality of the heel (‘stiletto’ was the Italian word for an assassin’s knife, a stealthy and dangerous blade favored by Renaissance killers and later by the criminal underbelly of Sicily). The stiletto heel caused disturbance wherever it roamed – damaging floors, others’ feet, owners’ spines and causing moral panic and outrage.

‘Killer heels’ can be uncomfortable or even downright painful after a night of partying, as many of us know, and walking in them demands stamina, determination and training.

In addition, the needle heel has a long and complicated relationship with eroticism and female power. The stiletto reeks of sex; no other shoe creates such an erotically taut foot and an overall come-hither silhouette. It was reviled by feminists in the 1960s and 1970s as a shackling device to keep women physically and mentally restrained, decried as a sign of patriarchal enslavement.

Nowadays, the stiletto has partially regained its place in the hierarchy of feminine footwear and become not only a badge of sex appeal but also of status and power. The expensive designs by Jimmy Choo, Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik and Prada are especially high-status, signs of the fashion cognoscenti rather than of the fashion victim.

Yet the stiletto is still an ambivalent symbol; it simultaneously renders helpless and enables women to pose impressively; can be an object of desire and contempt; gives women a psychological advantage yet renders them merely provocative; overtly sexualizes yet carries a whiff of post-feminist power and economic control. The needle heel can lure and repel.

In the past, when confronted by people who were horrified by my stilettos for one reason or another, I often used to come up with a clever remark such as, “Yes, well, I have a foreshortened Achilles tendon, and my doctor forbids me to wear heels shorter than four inches.”

But perhaps instead I should give a version of Louboutin’s famous words on his own design:

“The last thing I would like is for people to point to my shoes and say, ‘Oh, they look so comfortable.’”

Kelly Olson is an associate professor of Classical Studies. She is on a one-woman mission to replace Uggs with cowboy boots.