TORONTO — YOU can’t even really see the shoes.
In many of the photos of women on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, the elegant gowns fall all the way to the ground, obscuring a view of their special-occasion footwear.
So why on earth would it matter if women entering the prestigious celebration of cinema chose not to confine themselves in difficult-to-walk-in heels, opting for something more manageable — or even fashion-forward, in a flat?
It did seem to matter to someone, though. It was reported last week that some women were turned away from the festival for the sartorial sin of wearing flats. High heels, it turns out, appeared to be part of the unwritten red-carpet dress code. Wearing heels changes how you stand, how you walk and how you are perceived. Even if they are visible only in small flashes, when a hem moves to one side, they are, in essence, a foundation garment: shoes that keep women in their place.
The heel has come to be the icon of feminine allure and even female power. But what, exactly, is this power and why do only women have the privilege of using heels to convey it?
Heeled footwear that gave the wearer a bit of a lift, or an advantage while on horseback, were not the original domain of women. They were first introduced into Western fashion around the turn of the 17th century from Western Asia. Privileged men, followed by women, eagerly wore them for more than 130 years as expressions of power and prestige.
This changed, however, in the 18th century when the distinctions between male and female dress began to reflect larger cultural shifts. Regardless of class, men were deemed uniquely endowed with rational thought and thus worthy of political enfranchisement. Heels were not required on this new equal playing field. Men began to wear the nascent three-piece suit in somber hues and were discouraged from standing out from one another. Alexander Pope, writing early in the century, composed a satirical list of men’s club rules that included the warning that if a member “shall wear the Heels of his shoes exceeding one inch and half... the Criminal shall instantly be expell’d... Go from among us, and be tall if you can!”
Women, in contrast, were represented as being naturally deficient in reason and unfit for either education or citizenship. Fashion was redefined as frivolous and feminine, and the high heel became a potent accessory of ditsy desirability. The “lively” character Harriot “tottering on her French heels and with her head as unsteady as her feet” in a 1781 story “The Delineator,” represented the typical 18th-century feminine ideal. The high heel was then suspect for other reasons, too; it had supposed connections to female vanity and deceitfulness. Added to this was the increasing fear that women would use heels and other sexualized modes of dress to seduce men and usurp power. Marie Antoinette was the poster child for this, and this idea is the cornerstone of the contemporary conceit that high heels are accessories of female power.
By the 19th century, the invention of photography, and its immediate adoption by pornographers, established the curious convention of depicting women stripped of their clothing with the exception of their shoes.
The heel also retained its associations with female irrationality. As one anti-suffrage agitator wrote in The New York Times in 1871, “Suffrage! Right to hold office! Show us first the woman who has ... sense and taste enough to dress attractively and yet to walk down Fifth-avenue wearing ... a shoe which does not destroy both her comfort and her gait.”
With all this baggage weighing down high heels, it’s no wonder they couldn’t gain a foothold in men’s fashion — even when men’s stature became a cultural focus in the early decades of the 20th century. Pseudoscientific ideas promoted Darwinian concepts of survival of the fittest and linked male height directly to sexual attractiveness. Heels could have been pressed back into service in men’s fashion, yet they were rejected. Heels on men detracted from their masculinity by highlighting a natural lack of height, rather than conferring any advantage gained from artificially increased stature.
High heels on women, however, remained the cultural norm. Even when heels temporarily went out of fashion, they retained a prominent place in erotica. At the conclusion of World War II, this association led to the invention of the stiletto. The exceptionally thin heels depicted in wartime pinup art were made reality in the early 1950s and real-life women were encouraged to emulate those pinup ideals. Marilyn Monroe — alluring, playful and invariably stiletto shod — became one of the principal feminine archetypes of the period.
By the 1960s, the high heel fell somewhat from favor; too “mature” for the Youthquake style revolution and too problematic for emerging feminists. It returned to fashion in the 1970s, perfectly in tune with the disco era (when some men did allow heels back into their wardrobe, too).
In the 1980s, as unprecedented numbers of women entered the white-collar workplace, climbing the corporate ladder was perceived as socially risky — it could strip a woman of her desirability. High fashion offered an antidote: Toweringly high “killer heels” that insinuated that business acumen alone was not the reason for women’s success. By the early 2000s, designer heels were perceived as “power tools” — as one Times storycalled them — to be used, like lingerie, by professional women to manipulate people through the “power” of sex appeal, an idea that continues to resonate to this day.
Linking sex appeal to power also clearly suggests that women have a very short window of opportunity for when they can be seen as powerful. The common comment about the Cannes debacle — that a handful of middle-aged women in flats were turned away — illustrates this issue. In an apologist manner, this observation seemed to suggest that perhaps if these women hadn’t been so aged they wouldn’t have worn sensible shoes. Never mind what accomplishments or connections brought them to the festival.
This is the ultimate problem with sexual allure as a purported means to power: The power lies in the eye of the beholder, not the beheld.
If the argument for heels is that they are part of traditional attire for women, that is not wrong. The body-revealing gowns and barely there footwear worn by women on the red carpet have direct links to 18th-century ideas on gender, 19th-century pornographic images and midcentury concepts of a woman’s place in society.
Perhaps it is a tradition we can upend in the 21st century, when it should be clear that a woman’s power has nothing to do with the height of her heel.