It Begins With the Chopine
High heels can elevate the wearer in both stature and perceived power. Slipping on a pair can instantly boost your confidence, making you look and feel elegant and sexy. Of course, all women know the sharp, nagging pain of a heel worn too long, and many have sworn off the shoes altogether in exchange for more comfortable options. But lest we forget, there are also some interesting social benefits of wearing heels.
A recent study conducted by psychologists Paul Morris, Jenny White, Edward Morrison and Kayleigh Fisher from the University of Portsmouth in the UK proves that women in heels are perceived to be more attractive due to the exaggerated femininity in their gait. This isn’t surprising: Women (and men) have known this for centuries.
Oddly enough, the very first high heel might also be one of the most current today. Originating in 16th century Venice, this extreme-looking shoe was made for aristocrats trying to avoid the water and dirt that lurked along the city streets. The exaggerated height and big, blocky nature of the Chopine made the simple act of walking a real balancing act, and a woman needed a companion to aid her during a stroll. Fast-forward to the present decade, and you must admit that they look strikingly similar to Lady Gaga’s gravity-defying footwear.
The Early 1900s
Still under the influence of the Victorian era, it was not yet acceptable for a woman’s foot to be seen in public. Mostly hidden by long, heavy skirts, the shoe of the day was a sensible, laced-up pump with a low heel. By the roaring ’20s, when women began to free themselves from the constraints of bustles, corsets and layers of clothing, a scandalous leg and sexier shoe appeared. Hemlines rose and so did heel heights (although by today’s standards those heels are quite conservative). More open styles with multiple straps across the top of the foot, T-straps, metallics and higher heels accompanied the flirty flappers on their newfound quest for a good time.
The Golden Age of Hollywood birthed a more glamorous style of women’s footwear, thanks to gorgeous film stars and their glitzy shoes. Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers showcased inspiring styles to women on the edge of the Depression, even if they were not accessible to the masses. Iconic shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo invented the wedge heel in 1933, adding comfort and mobility to higher heels. The wedge remains one of the most beloved shoes styles today. Prolific in his footwear designs, Ferragamo also invented the modern sizing system for shoes, cork and glass heels and an innovative metal framework that changed the structure of how shoes were made.
The War-Time ’40s
WWII brought many challenges for women looking to remain fashionable. Because women took over in the American workforce during the wars, shoes became more sensible with chunkier high heels and platforms. Wedges, thick ankle straps and high-throated pumps and oxfords dominated the look for footwear during this period.
The Fabulous ’50s
After the wars ended, fashion again emerged as a popular indulgence. Women were eager to embrace femininity by adopting sexier clothing and higher heels than ever. Shoe designer Roger Vivier brought the stiletto heel into the mainstream. While Vivier did not actually invent the stiletto, he made it the statement shoe of the decade. The pointed stiletto pump of the 1950s remains iconic in fashion history.
The Swinging ’60s
As hemlines reached heights never seen before, so did women’s viewpoints on liberating themselves from society’s stereotypes. As stilettos fell out of favor with many young women, a chunkier, high platform heel and go-go boot became the trendy look. The newfound Youthquake movement blended into Hippie culture in the late ’60s, morphing women’s and men’s fashion into new androgynous territory.
Disco fever and glam rock dominated the ’70s, and women and men started to wear virtually interchangeable platform shoes and boots. Terry de Havilland, the self-proclaimed British rock n’ roll cobbler, shod women in the most fantastical heels of the decade in psychedelic color combinations, metallic skins and patterns. The latter part of the ’70s culminated in the aggressive punk movement, pausing the love affair with heels of all kinds and shifting to clunky Dr. Martens combat boots and Creepers.
The newly independent working woman found her sole mate in the high heel pump. Not content with classic colors, the ’80s heel came in a wide variety of hues, materials and heights. Cabochon jewels, patent leather and animal patterns were the norm. A funky leopard print heel was one way for a woman to put a personal stamp on her masculine power suit of the moment.
From grunge to a more elegant and streamlined, minimalist look, in the ’90s, we witnessed the continued rise of iconic shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. Already a footwear force in the U.S. market, Blahnik began to partner with designers for their runway shows, rendering his styles indispensable for chic, refined ladies. His BB pump (named after Brigitte Bardot) is certainly his most famous and beloved, a classic high heel pump with a narrow toe and slim silhouette -- still a mainstay in a multitude of materials and colors. It is the perfect high heel: sexy yet sophisticated. Blahnik’s heels are said to be the most comfortable shoes in the world and are found on every red carpet. Nipping at his heels was competitor Jimmy Choo who features a style similar to Blahnik, also with a particular fondness for very high, sexy heels.
Manolo Blahnik’s classic Carolyne shoe. Photo courtesy of Manolo Blahnik.
At the onset of the new century, a brand new DIY trend emerged, allowing women to choose their own looks rather than adhering to the styles dictated by designers or the fashion press. One thing was certain: Accessories of all kinds became the objects of desire. Shoes were the coveted statement on the runway and the street. Heels rose up to 7 or 8 inches, thankfully with the aid of a platform. Spikes, cones, blocks, wedges and impossible invisible heels only added to an already outrageous shoe decorated with fur, studs, mirrors, jewels, fringe and even fruit.
Going forward into this fall season and next spring, shoes are lightening up and shedding their ostentatious skins. They also seem to be more grounded with major statements in menswear oxfords, sneakers and flats of all kinds.
But I’m not worried about the fate of the high heel: We’re just in the midst of a sartorial break. When heels makes their next big appearance, we’ll see refreshed styles ready to take center stage once again, giving women everywhere a good reason to stand tall.