Essay: The Politics of Shoes

by Vanessa Friedman on 23 July 2008

Fashion critic Vanessa Friedman questions the continued use of high heels on the runway.

Fashion critic Vanessa Friedman questions the continued use of high heels on the runway.

Stella McCartney Autumn/Winter 2008

What is happening to shoes? Specifically, what is happening to shoes on the runway? Enquiring minds want to know. Sitting at Stella McCartney’s show in February, a designer whose whole shtick is about girl-friendly dressing, was a terrifying experience. Those models tottered, their calves in tight, holding-on-for-dear-life knots of terror, as they attempted to navigate the floor in weird, towering, inward curving wedges. Even the sylph-like Liya Kebede, who normally seems to glide through her runway appearances, crept along at a snails’ pace, presumably so she did not tumble down in an ignominious heap instead. At Jil Sander, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Zac Posen the story was the same: footwear that had become an abstraction, not a vehicle that would allow a woman to motor through life, but one that would chain her, complicate her life, render her... dependent.

That is not progress. It’s foot-binding in contemporary form.

There are two ways to look at this: one unintentional (these weird accessories are merely the extreme and unsuccessful version of the trend toward wedges and platforms, the footwear that gave women physical dominance with comfort) and one purposeful (designers, after empowering women through wedges and platforms, became uneasy and wanted to undermine the advances). What side you come down on depends on how much credit you give fashion for actually thinking about its responsibilities towards female actualisation, as opposed to what Frank Gehry building it just saw, or historical time period it was feeling particularly romantic about at that moment.

Personally, I would like to give fashion the benefit of the doubt. Raf Simons and Stella McCartney do so much sartorially to liberate women, to make them look slick and strong through the cut of a jacket, the generosity of a collar and the absence of extraneous gewgaws, that I would like to think the shoes are simply a mistake, not a misanthropic gesture (I use Raf and Stella here simply as examples; they are not at all the sole offenders in this situation). But something niggles. After all, presumably they are smart enough individuals and aware-enough brand managers to understand the mixed messages they are sending on their runways. If not, here is the wake-up call.

Free the foot!



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