Previously, on ‘Part 1’ Chief Curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, Elizabeth Semmelhack, revealed that heels were originally meant for men and why we have culturally associated high heels with women. For her, there is an obvious sexual connotation in the way women have been wearing them throughout history.
We continue our interesting conversation to learn more about the role that shoes play in our culture and society.
CF: What about businesswomen? There’s so much research proving that some women feel the need to wear heels in order to have authority and be respected at work.
ES: We know that the majority of men who are CEOs are 6’2 or over, but the reality is that the majority of men are not 6’2 foot and over. So why don’t men make use of the high heel so they, too, can be tall in the workplace? Why is it just women?
CF: That’s another interesting thing to think about. Why are heels meant exclusively women? Why are men not wearing them?
ES: I think it has to do with how we conferred desirability. For example, at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, particularly in the ‘30s, there was a lot of discussion about race and racial superiority, and it was deemed that the most desirable men were the tallest. There are books written on this, there is advice to short men on what to do, so this is where men started wearing elevated shoes with something on the inside. The thing for these short men is, why don’t we let them wear high heels? I guess it’s because if he wears high heels, then he basically admits that is not naturally tall enough, it’s like a man wearing a toupee where we can see and say “Oh! You don’t actually have hair!” A man in heels is like “You’re not naturally man enough!”, so it highlights lack!
On the other hand, feminine desirability isn’t linked so much to height as it is linked to ideas of sexual desirability. I’ve traced the prominence of high heels within men’s pornography, and one of my questions is, “Why is the naked female body in men’s pornography so often ornamented with a pair of high heels?” This doesn’t really make sense! And people would say “Well, the high heels are meant to make your legs look longer and your butt fuller.” But in the actual history of the high heels I’ve learned that women wore long skirts until the 1920’s and it had nothing to do with the elongating the leg. They had complete flat silhouettes.
All of these things are culturally constructed. So I think that currently we have these very strong ideas about the connection between eroticism and high heels. We have culturally suggested that women’s power is simply limited to their sexual desirability. Of course we want to be powerful, but if your only avenue towards power is to be desirable, then you are going to wear high heels. Heels have no intrinsic meaning, and they are simply things we give meaning to culturally. If more and more truly powerful women wear high heels, then potentially the high heel could come to actually come to be synonymous with power. For example, if Hilary Clinton becomes President of the United States and wants to wear Louboutin shoes, she is in fact powerful, and so that could become an image of power. But the fun thing is the most powerful women in the world currently do not wear high heels, and I find that an interesting part of this argument.
CF: I suppose that’s because they don’t feel they need that “weapon” to highlight their power…
ES: Correct! However, I do think that there is something to be said about the fact that the business suit that men wear confers power. The high heel for women in business is now increasingly being associated with actual business power, but I do think that, ultimately, power is non-gender. Money is power because if I have five dollars and I am a woman and a man has five dollars too, we both can buy five dollars worth of stuff. So, if the high heel does ultimately become associated with power, then men and women will both wear it — but men will not wear it as long as is linked to femininity [more than it is to] power.
CF: So now I’m wondering if you see a connection between women’s obsession with shoes and the “shoe fetish” that is more common in males? Maybe because women are aware of the meanings that we have culturally given to shoes — their sexual connotation — they unconsciously develop this obsession with buying shoes in order to be more desirable to men?
ES: Maybe, although a man desiring and objectifying a high heel is different than a woman wearing a high heel. I don’t think that is genetic — I think that culturally, with this very long-standing tradition that has been an element of femininity even since the 18th century, the shoe obsession has simply been associated with being female. Men also always engage in fashion and there are many men who eagerly embrace fashion, so it’s not a genetic thing but a cultural thing.
CF: Fashion plays a crucial role in our mood, that way we feel, how we project ourselves and reassure our identity. Do shoes have a similar effect on our state of mind or the construction of identity?
ES: Well, the way I think about it is that in many ways, clothing is like a vocabulary, and all the objects we put on our body are words. We attempt to allow others to read us by that visual vocabulary, by the garments that we put on. And in the same way we’re using this vocabulary of fashion to speak to one another, we are also using it to speak to ourselves: “What do I feel like today?”
Another interesting thing about this is that throughout history, women have always felt obligated to show up in something that no other woman would be wearing. Men, on the other hand, have always had the freedom to show up wearing whatever they want — even if it matches the outfit of another man. Can one look at this as an obligation that women have, as a sort of social responsibility? Do I need to spend this amount of time shopping and making sure that I put together a very individual look?
On the other hand, this can be seen as a [positive thing for women]: “I get the opportunity to spend time to construct an individual expression of how I look.” For men, it can go in two ways: they can simply dress behind a uniform of authority, or now, like with the sneaker culture, they can begin to have individual words to express their individuality through fashion. I feel like this is a very interesting moment and a change is actually happening in men’s fashion.
[To be continued…]