The history of the high heel – and what it says about women today
The Cannes Film Festival is not exactly the epitome of an inclusive event. In order to attend, you must be an invited guest, producer, director, star, or someone associated with the making of a major film. This group gets winnowed further if you consider the film industry itself, as evidenced by the ACLU’s recent gender discrimination investigation or the hacked Sony e-mails. Yet when a security guard at this already insular event denied entry to a woman because she was not wearing high heels — well, that caused an international furor.
A shoe is not just any accessory. To throw one is a sign of disrespect in certain places (as George W. Bush experienced in 2008). In other contexts, it’s seen as a symbol of liberation (see recent news stories that Barbie can finally wear flats after 56 years). Footwear is a fashion statement, a symbol of empowerment (or subordination, depending on your view), and a cultural flash point. Science even tells us that shoes are one of the first mthings we use to judge another person. Little surprise then, that throughout its 500-year history, few articles of clothing have been more polarizing — and powerful — than the high heel.
From their conception, heels have been meant to elevate physically, bestowing a superior posture but also perceived power or prestige from the added stature. In one of their first modern appearances, Catherine de Medici wore heels at her presentation to the French court in 1533, wanting the event to be memorable. Catherine was marrying the Duke of Orleans, after all — and she didn’t want to appear shorter than the duke’s very tall mistress. By 1580, heels up to 5 inches tall were the rage for both men and women of the upper classes, a sign of both wealth and social position.
High heels also have a serious physiological impact on the way someone walks, stands, and moves. As the actor and drag queen RuPaul once put it, “High heels do not represent femininity, they just make your butt look really good — your posture completely changes for a superior, affected stance and the butt becomes a work of art.” Kiva Reardon, editor of Cleo, a magazine on feminism and film, and programming associate at the Toronto Film Festival, concurs. “Height has always been equated with power,” Reardon says. “As a taller woman, I nearly always opt to wear heels in hopes of being one of the tallest people in the room. I want to see what’s around me and be seen.”
Still, at Cannes, the shoe policy tapped into a sort of simmering rage. Consider how Kate Muir, a senior film critic who has covered the festival for many years for the Times of London, saw it. (Muir was the first to tweet about the incident.) “This was supposed to be the year of ‘la femme’ in Cannes — where only 9 percent of directors in competition in the last 10 years have been women — and actresses and the festival director Thierry Fremaux spoke at a series of Kering Women in Motion talks to celebrate women in film,” Muir noted with great irony. “But the red carpet flats ban showed the old-fashioned sexist side of Cannes had not quite disappeared.”
Humans make very quick decisions with minimal amounts of information — this is referred to as “thin-slicing.” And just as a tiny altercation on the French Riviera can spark a global conversation about gender and footwear, “Impression formation happens quickly, and has long lasting effects on attitudes, expectations, and behavior,” concludes “Shoes as a Source of First Impressions,” a 2012 University of Kansas study. In other words, the seemingly inconsequential is not so inconsequential.
“It may seem somewhat overblown to declare the seemingly trivial act of wearing flats to a formal event as an act of resistance, but the potential impact is truly significant. After all, it’s not that long ago that women were forbidden from wearing pants in public,” says Juliet Williams, an associate professor of gender studies and associate dean of social sciences at UCLA. “By this logic, the expectation (if not formal compulsion) that women wear high heels may be seen as one more shackle that needs to be cast off if women are ever to truly compete, toe-to-comfortable-toe, with men.”
From the 1970s’ outrageous disco platforms to the 1980s’ designer sneakers, footwear has always echoed current cultural temperature. Reardon says the shoe reveals the subtext of what’s happening in 2015. “It’s easier to talk about policing footwear than, say, the lack of racial and gender diversity behind the camera. These things are connected, of course, but I don’t think we often make the leap to the broader, more systemically ingrained issues of discrimination.”
Actress Frances McDormand, however, got right to the point. “We’ve never been paid commensurately, and that has to change,” McDormand said at one of the Cannes Women in Motion panels, where, coincidentally enough, she changed from sneakers into heels. “The main point of feminism is equal pay for equal work. I haven’t been given that. We don’t need a lot of initiatives for women in film. What we need is money.”
Indeed, the conflagration over heels versus flats runs much deeper than Cannes. “High heels are a remnant of old-guard misogyny that will have no place in the future,” says Zackary Drucker, who is an artist, producer, and consultant on the TV series “Transparent.” “Regulating and restricting women’s comfort, and placing a gender standard that is set along a bifurcated line, is the very definition of supremacy. The policing of femininity prevents all of society from moving forward.”
And, for better or worse, Hollywood often plays a role in setting those social norms. McDormand in her talk went on to paraphrase the age-old Ginger Rogers quote highlighting the challenges women face today. “Just like Ginger Rogers knew with Fred Astaire,” she said. “You [still] have to do it backwards and in heels.”
Meghan Cleary is a footwear expert and author of “Shoe Are You?” Follow her on Twitter @shoeareyou.