Fashion Historian Valerie Steele Explains The Psychology Behind Our Shoe Obsession

Marina Zheng

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Don’t even try to deny it: You own at least one too many pairs of shoes. Yeah, so do we. But it’s not hard to see why: footwear is functional, transformative, and totally loyal—shoes always seem to fit even when our favorite jeans betray us. We also go to some pretty insane lengths for the right pair of shoes, risking major injuries and blisters. So, why this fanaticism? That’s the question explored in Shoe Obsession, the Museum at FIT’s upcoming exhibit, opening Feb. 8.

In a highly enlightening read, Dr. Valerie Steele—one of the exhibits curators and author of Shoes: A Lexicon of Style—sat down with to try and makes sense of the obsession women have with their shoes, and what it really means. Below, we’ve highlighted five key points Steele makes, but we highly encourage footwear fetishists to head over to and read the interview in full!

1. Heels have risen to fetish proportion in the past 20 years or so.
“Before he died, Helmut Newton said in an interview that in the seventies, you had to go to fetish and porn stores to get the kind of shoes he wanted for his fashion photographs. But by the early nineties, he could go to any high fashion designer—Chanel, Dior, they were all doing fetish-y shoes. So that’s one thing, which I think is crucial to the recent growth of heels. Another is the popularity of platforms on shoes. If you’ve got a two-inch platform, automatically your heel can go from three to five inches, or from four to six, or whatever you want.”

2. We splurge on expensive shoes because they’re cheaper than expensive clothes.
“You can get a lot more fashion bang for your buck with a pair of shoes. You know, it might be a thousand dollars, but if you’re going to buy a jacket or a dress by that same or a comparable designer, you’d be talking three, four thousand dollars or up.”

3. The average woman owns about twenty pairs of shoes.
“[That’s] twice as many shoes as she had ten years ago.”

4. We’re having a major shoe moment
“We’ve been in this growing mania for shoes—the heels have gotten higher, the prices have gotten higher, and department stores around the world are engaging in the great designer shoe wars and enlarging their shoe departments … Shoes and bags as accessories have moved more and more toward the center of fashion. But now we’re seeing a moment when shoes have temporarily eclipsed the It bag.”

5. Platforms, out. Single-soles, in.
“[Platforms have] been going on for more than five years and people are sick of it. Now, single-sole shoes are being referred to openly as “sexy shoes.” They might not be quite as vertiginously high, but [they create] a sexier, smaller, more delicate-looking foot.”

Shoe Obsession is a free exhibit running from Feb. to April 13 at The Museum at FIT