What Do High Heels Stand For In 2016?

Victoria Beckham has hung up her stilettos. A gory photo of the bloodied feet of an employee at a Canadian restaurant that forced its female staff to wear high heels went viral recently after the employee's friend posted about it on Facebook. Last week, London temp worker Nicola Thorp dominated headlines, after she was sent home from PricewaterhouseCoopers without pay, for refusing to wear a high-heeled shoe. Welcome to 2016: the year footwear got political.

Throughout history, heels have meant many things to many groups of people. Both men and women have worn them. Long before they were associated with fashion and femininity, they were used by cavalries in battle so the soldiers could stand more securely in their stirrups and aim better at their enemies. And in the hundreds of years since, they’ve had many more roles: They’ve been a symbol of power, a measure of status, and even a porn film prop.

Louis XIV famously wore high heels, and during his reign, the taller the shoe, the higher the position of the wearer. The less practical they were to walk in, the more important you were, because people who can’t walk properly can’t work, either. For a French king waited on by minions, this was an effective way to assert the order of things — but for a temp worker who's on her feet all day? Not so much.

After a long time in vogue, heels finally went out of fashion during the Enlightenment. As rationality and science became more important, people were less interested in prancing around in shoes that prevented them from walking more than 10 feet at a time. Men began to pride themselves with being practical. Frivolous clothes did not equate to education, reason, and intelligence — all revered as male qualities at the time.

In Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe, author Elizabeth Semmelhack argues that it was pornography that led to high heels eventually being associated with women — and sex. When photography became easily accessible, the modern porn industry was born, and heels were used to make women’s legs look longer, which speaks volumes about the shoes' current perception problem in the workplace.

Speaking to Refinery 29 about Thorp’s case, Semmelhack argued that high heels are still perpetuating sexism. "As long as the high heel is linked to desirability, and desirability is linked to female success, then, yes, high heels will stand in the way of equality," Semmelhack said.

Of course, for some women, heels serve as an accessory that can elevate an outfit from average to excellent, and, perhaps, imbue extra confidence for that big meeting or important interview. But wearing heels (and viewing them as a form of empowerment) is a very personal choice, as the outcry spurred by Thorp’s story highlights. When it comes to feeling smart, powerful, or ready to take on the world, one woman’s Louboutins are another woman’s Nike Air Max.

In the latter camp is Miranda Braithwaite, a government employee in London. While she wouldn’t wear Nikes to the office, in her four years working as an underwriter she’s never once put on a pair of heels, nor felt like she had to. “I understand that some workplaces have dress codes, and that [Thorp] was expected to be 'smart,'” Braithwaite said. “But I don’t believe that the only 'smart' shoes a women can wear are heels.”
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And then there’s another question that's made all the more pertinent by our changing perceptions of gender stereotypes. If heels really were linked to power and success, then wouldn’t men be wearing them, too? There’s still little crossover between "women’s clothes" and "men’s clothes," particularly in the workplace, despite certain high street chains’ attempts to cash in on gender fluidity (Zara launched its first genderless collection earlier this year). In general, men's and women’s fashion are still pretty different.

One man who enjoys bending the fashion rules is social media community manager Caner Daywood. “I started wearing heels in my early 20s” Daywood said. “As my style was evolving past the conventions of male trends I wanted to feel more powerful, self-aware and confident, so I started wearing Cuban heeled boots then started moving into stilettos as I got braver within my own aesthetic.”

Despite it not being the norm yet, Caner hopes that the conceit of men in heels will soon be more accepted (at the very least). “To be honest, I don't care, as [we] drag queens have always been outside the norm and that's how we like it,” he explained. “It's just that other people want to join us here and don't know how."

Man or woman, it’s safe to say that most of us agree on one thing: heels can make you look good. And we should be able to wear them because we want to (if we want to) and because we enjoy it (if that is, indeed, the case). “I have 54 pairs of shoes and choose them based on whether they go with my outfit and who I’m going to meet that day,” Nadya Powell, managing director of creative company Sunshine, told Refinery29.

“It’s 100% my choice, and it should be no other way. I’ve never been someone who feels more powerful or confident because of [heels]," Powell said of opting to wear height-bolstering shoes. "Quite simply, if you are physically uncomfortable or don’t feel confident in what you’re wearing, how you do your job will be affected in a negative way.”

Of course, the meanings we associate with a particular type of shoe are always evolving. Anyone working in a creative industry will be used to seeing colleagues in sneakers, jeans, and, well, whatever else they feel comfortable in that day. Katie Harland spotted the lack of fun, comfortable, yet also stylish shoes while working in advertising, and launched her shoe start-up Rogues shortly after.

“Shoes are a fashion commodity, so they should make you feel good," Harland said. “Whatever footwear you choose you should feel happy in them. One thing I love about shoes is the fact that they're the only thing you wear that you can see yourself in all day.”

If you look down and see a pair of uncomfortable, maybe even torturous heels that make it hard to walk, and hard for you to do what you want or need to do that day, that’s pretty demotivating. And if you want to look down at shoes that make you feel great about yourself? That’s a small pleasure to which we should all be entitled.

“Heels have gone out of fashion in the past, yet seem to re-emerge over and over again,” Semmelhack said. “Culturally, the high heel remains a potent, albeit problematic, icon of femininity, and given that the meanings we ascribe to the high heel have developed over centuries, I think it will take a while for it to completely disappear.”

So while our outdated views slowly die out, here’s to women being able to wear any shoes they want — not the ones a patriarchal dress code requires.
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