In everyday life we all have our fashion hang-ups. From a fear of mixing black and brown to working a super-short skirt with sky-high heels, the history of our anxieties is almost as interesting as the history of the clothes and accessories themselves. Dr. Anna Akbari is a professor of sociology at NYU with a specialization in art and design history. She also moonlights as a “thinking person’s stylist” for her own company, Closet Catharsis.
This week, Dr. Anna is (literally) kicking off the start of summer with a historical look at high heels and how you can overcome your fear of them while still reaching new heights. Click through the slideshow above for a quick fashion primer and some sound style advice.
How high (or low) do you go with your heels?
We obsess over shoes and make them the repeated subject of movies (like The Wizard of Oz) and fairy tales alike. Historically, they have been used to drastically transform the body and the foot itself. Here’s a look at how shoes continue to reshape our feet and our culture.
Shoe styles have historically indicated social rank. Pointed sandals represented the highest rank in ancient Egypt, while the women of ancient Greece enlisted slaves to carry their occasion-specific footwear.
Beginning as early as the 10th century, women were binding their feet to make their feet appear smaller, such as with the Chinese Lotus shoes. Foot binding was practiced by society’s female elite as a demonstration of conspicuous leisure, indicating that those women were free to refrain from manual labor.
The elongation of the foot via pointy shoes rose in popularity in France. In the 12th century, King Philip Augustus decreed that the points of his soldiers’ shoes would be 6-12 inches long, in accordance with class and rank.
Later, in the 19th century, out of the Bethmale Valley in Fance, village men created wooden bridal shoes for their brides-to-be: the higher the point, the greater the love.
The 16th century kept women on their toes -- literally. In fact, the shoes became so steep that women could not walk in them. Chopines -- the first platforms -- gained popularity between the 15th-17th centuries. They measured anywhere from 5 to as much as 20 inches high, and acted as stilts that allowed women to tower over others (with relative chopine height indicative of social status, and servants were needed to keep these women upright).
Male “lifts” emerged as early as the Renaissance, as 17th century men
were no strangers to high heels. This trend especially appealed to
shorter men like King Louis XIV of France, who enhanced his 5’5 stature
with heels measuring up to 5 inches in height.
Researchers continue to explore tactics for exerting and claiming power, and an inflated appearance of height is at the top of the list. In fact, each extra inch of height can correlate with around $1,000 extra wages per year. (Note: This is a great way to justify the purchase of extravagant heels, like a pair of Stuart Weitzman’s Million Dollar Shoes!)
You don’t have to be Imelda Marcos with 2700 pairs of shoes to be in step with the trends. While designers refuse to abandon extreme shoes (like Louis Vuitton’s metallic toe heel, extreme platforms by Celine, or needle heels by Calvin Klein and Mugler) more wearable options do exist, as witnessed in Olivia Palermo’s nude pointy-toe pumps.
Regardless of how you decide to transform your feet, the most important way to ensure that you keep putting one foot in front of the other after a long day or night in sky-high heels or toe-pinching footwear is with a pair of emergency shoes. Collapsible flats are a stylish and practical solution for times when you can't bear to take another step in your own shoes.