Best Fifteen Books of March 2019, Refinery29
Object Lessons is a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things.
Fetishized, demonized, celebrated, and outlawed, the high heel is central to the iconography of modern womanhood. But are high heels good? Are they feminist? What does it mean for a woman (or, for that matter, a man) to choose to wear them?
Meditating on the labyrinthine nature of sexual identity and the performance of gender, High Heel moves from film to fairytale, from foot binding to feminism, and from the golden ratio to glam rock. Summer Brennan considers this most provocative of fashion accessories as a nexus of desire and struggle, sex and society, violence and self expression, setting out to understand what it means to be a woman by walking a few hundred years in her shoes.
Object Lessons is published in partnership with an essay series in The Atlantic.
About the Author
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THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS
"Then it seemed like falling into a labyrinth: we thought we were at the finish but our way bent round and we found ourselves as it were back at the beginning ..."
— SOCRATES, PLATO'S EUTHEDEMUS
A woman runs through a forest, chased by a god.
Another attends a ball.
A third stands over a subway grate in white chiffon.
A fourth chains herself to the gates of a palace.
A fifth is carried away.
A sixth is going home now, click click click.
(Another, not counted here, disappears in the darkness.)
A seventh approaches the guillotine.
An eighth dances backward, into cliché.
A ninth wants to stop and can't.
A tenth is furred and feathered and becomes the jungle.
An eleventh emerges from the sea.
A twelfth erases the border between countries, rides a stallion, and does the laundry, like a goddess, in a cocktail dress and black high heels.
These, my dancing princesses, of a different sort altogether.
I started writing this in Paris, birthplace of the stiletto, in summer. The daytime streets were crowded with women in flats, sandals, casual sneakers, and fashionable running shoes; few wore high heels. With the locals fled to the countryside or vacations in the south, the city's annual flush of tourists was given right-of-way.
To be sure to see a woman in high heels out in the open, one had to catch her in the morning on her way to work, or else wait until the evening hours when she emerged again, doe-like, crepuscular, red lipstick refreshed. Old, young, tall, short, black, white, and everything in between, the chic Parisiennes filled metro cars and twilit sidewalks; they traversed the smoky cobblestones or the chalky ground of manicured parks en route to dinners or parties, their arches lifted as if on tiptoe, moving to the street-muffled sounds of clack clack clack clack and tap tap tap tap.
Enter the labyrinth. Take a turn, and another turn, and another. You won't have too much time. The stopwatch is ticking, and evening is closing in. Just keep walking. Yes, like that.
Our shoes pin us to the world, like Peter Pan to his shadow. More than simply facilitating our movement out-of-doors, they mediate between the wearer and the ground. Perhaps it is less the world they pin us to, but our place in it — that shadow of society that follows wherever we go.
In 1962, the writer and poet Sylvia Plath drew a picture of a pair of black patent leather high-heel shoes. That these were her own personal shoes is not confirmed, but I believe they were. In the drawing, done in ink, the left shoe points east while the right shoe points north by northwest, as if turned overly inward into a position that no real feet could find tenable. Above these, in pencil, Plath wrote "The Bell Jar."
A pair of worn shoes is a portrait of its wearer. Not just the scuffed toes and heels ground down by months or years of pavement, or the narratives told by damage and repair, but the form and function of them, their type. They are a part of our costume in both the quotidian and theatrical sense. And because the stories that shoes tell are invariably about public life, they must also be about status, and power, or the lack of it.
A friend of mine, a former colleague, is one of the most consistently feminine-presenting women that I know — always tastefully perfumed, always in heels. She emigrated from the Soviet Union with her family in 1989 when she was just a child. Sometime during that first year in America, her father took her to a supermarket in Queens, and snapped a photo of her in front of the overstocked juice aisle. It is a picture that radiates astonishment. One might expect a look of joy to accompany that much abundance, but instead there is something closer to shock and fear in her big brown eyes. Entitlement is a learned skill.
Western women are often told that we're now living in a time of unprecedented choice and the ability to form our own destiny. That the world is our overstocked supermarket. You go girl! the advertising copy says — or seems to say. The popular narrative is that we can choose to be whatever we want to be, to work or be a "housewife," a stay-at-home mom, to have a child or not. We're told that we can choose how we want to look, to wear makeup or not wear makeup, to grow our hair long or to buzz it off, and that we can choose whatever we want to wear on our feet. Modern shoe consumerism, especially, is often presented within the politically feminized language of choice. A woman's right to choose becomes "a woman's right to shoes." By this logic, it matters not so much what we choose, but that it is chosen. The very presence of different paths, visible but untaken, seems to indicate that choice was possible; that the path we end up on was selected as a result of our desires or, at the very least, by our personal limitations, and that this is empowerment, or even feminism. That empowerment — the taking on of power — is a matter of personal intent and actualization, rather than one of structural change. That the course we chart through the labyrinth is individual, and intentional.
Some buy it, some don't.
The high heels that Plath drew under the words "The Bell Jar" were meant to be an illustration for her novel of the same name. Understood to be an autobiographical roman à clef, it concerns a troubled young woman named Esther Greenwood at the dawn of her adult life. She is struggling to find her place in the world, beginning with an internship in New York City, and these same heels appear throughout the book as a sort of leitmotif. She is frequently aware of them, and what they are supposed to mean, the role they assign to her. The heels follow her like a shadowy familiar. We hear their origin story, bought one lunch hour at Bloomingdales "with a black patent leather belt and black patent leather pocket-book to match." At one key point in the book when she is ready to abandon her life, to unpin herself from the world, she first abandons the shoes — only to return, the stitching between self and society momentarily restored. She knows they should be a source of envy, that thousands of other college girls probably wished they could be standing in them: inside the high heels themselves, but also inside the life she has found herself in — selected for a prestigious scholarship, receiving fancy clothes, getting dressed up to attend formal luncheons and parties and to be photographed.
They are a pair of shoes she is supposed to be happy in but isn't.
There was a time in my own life in New York City when I wore high heels almost every day. I myself did not have much power, but I worked at the United Nations, in a place where powerful people congregate. It is a place of suits and ties, skirts and silk blouses; of long speeches and aggressive air conditioning; of Your Excellency, and Madam Chairperson, and freshly shined wingtips and yes, high heels.
I sat in rooms with presidents and royalty, although to these people I was always, precisely, nobody. There was an image in my mind of a certain kind of woman — professional, feminine, poised — that I wanted to embody. I saw these women daily, year after year, backstage to the halls of power, on benches by the ladies' room, changing in and out of comfortable and uncomfortable shoes.
In an early chapter of The Bell Jar, Esther comes across a description of a marvelous fig tree in a book, and it sends her spiraling into the daunting labyrinth of her own prospects: I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story, she writes. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
The shoes I saw women changing in and out of at work were a more advanced form of high heel than Plath's modest pumps, or the low kitten heels preferred by some, or the simple shoes that I could afford. These were power heels, and they were worn by women from all over the world. They were leopard print, or green and scaly. They were amaranthine and violaceous and subtly velvet. They were black and shiny as Japanese lacquer, with a shock of red on the sole. Some were plain, but uncomfortable anyway. Perhaps I have embellished them somewhat in my imagination, my memory tempered by glamour. What is not in dispute is that all of these statement shoes invariably came with a steel-spined appendage like an exclamation point: stiletto, the heel named for a dagger. For the women whose feet put up a fight, these shoes were changed out of and put away, smuggled in and out of the building in handbags, like weapons.
One warm night, outside Grand Central Station after a long day of work, I witnessed a curious metamorphosis. There was a woman standing in the shadows of 42nd Street. She was petite and nondescript, dressed in a black skirt, a black shirt, and brown moccasins, her hair pulled up in a bun. She had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to search for something in her oversized shoulder bag. After a moment she pulled out a pair of tall, platform, silver high heels, and set them on the ground in front of her. She stepped out of one moccasin, and then the other, and into the waiting, sparkling shoes. Calf muscles flexed, legs elongated, shoulders pushed back, she pulled a pin from her hair and a dark waterfall tumbled down. Had her ankles been that narrow a moment ago? Had the slit in the back of her skirt been quite that high the whole time? The moccasins went into the bag and the woman walked away down the street and into the night, glittering, transformed.
When I worked in a formal office setting, high heels were never of any special interest to me beyond the fact that I liked them, and wore them, and liked wearing them. I didn't fixate. I never owned too many. If I'm honest, there were times when I liked the idea of wearing them more than the actual wearing of the actual shoes.
Walking in high heels is easy, until it isn't. YouTube is full of videos of models falling down in high heels on the catwalk, even though walking confidently in high heels is a big part of their job. The long, thin bodies wobble, then crumple like collapsing paper dolls, rising and falling several more times as they gangle their way off the stage, the spell of poise irredeemably broken. Once they fall, it seems, they are likely to keep falling. Up and down they go. They fall because they are very young, or because they are hungry, or because balance, once lost for even a moment, can be difficult to regain — or because the shoes are impractical even for a model on a catwalk. Some of the worst "high-heel fail" video clips come from high heel races, wherein runners try to sprint while wearing tall stilettos, to earn money for charity, raise awareness for a cause, or, in the case of one Parisian event, to win free shoes for a decade from a particular company. In some instances, the runners secure the heeled shoes to their feet with packing tape. Some fall anyway. Walking in heels is one thing but running in heels is a skill akin to unicycling: a thing that one can master, but that can go very wrong very quickly, even for a professional.
I knew a woman some years ago, a scientist, who considered herself very reasonable. She did not wear high heels. She told me once that she enjoyed the early days of spring in New York City because it was when certain young women began to venture out onto the streets wearing high heels again. And, perhaps because the women were out of practice due to the wearing of winter boots, heeled or not, this caused a degree of lurching and tripping not seen as frequently later in the summer. Perhaps the shoes of early spring were new, and not yet broken in. Or maybe it was just that the delicate bare skin of the feet had grown accustomed to tights and socks, and so chafed and then bled against the friction of plastic and leather, however familiar, making it harder to walk. The scientist told me that she liked to see the women in high heels fall down, because the choice to wear them was so stupid, and they deserved it. Maybe they would learn something, she said. I knew that the lurching and tripping women were walking like that because they were in pain; that they might have started out in the morning walking easily, but that over the course of the day their shoes had betrayed them.
Of course, I fell.
The last time, the worst time, I felt it happening as if in slow motion, but the realization was not enough to halt the forward momentum created by height and weight plus velocity minus balance. I was at work. I groped through air for the railing at the center of the concrete staircase I had been trying to descend, and caught it, but it was too late. A security guard and two men in dapper suits all reached out for me in gestures of futile chivalry or reflexive human kindness, but they were not standing close enough and I went down, hard.
In my defense, a few things. For one, the stairs were of a nonstandard height. I was in a terrible rush. My job required that I "dress up," and since the rest of my wardrobe was not particularly fancy, wearing high heels seemed an easy way to accomplish this. It was a warm day in September and these were the only shoes I owned at the time that seemed to fit both the weather and the occasion. They were made of real leather, and were well broken in, but I had bought them second hand, a lucky find in a thrift shop, and they were higher than I might have preferred were I given a broader choice. I was on my way to a United Nations General Assembly side event on salaries and gender equality in the developing world, when I was obliged to take a detour by the rose garden, through the esplanade of cherry trees, to a lesser-known underground passage. A shortcut. There is an art installation nearby consisting of a kind of winding ribbon of fire painted onto the paved pathway that leads out to a view of the East River. I was walking along it on my way to the underground passage — or rather, because I was trying to juggle two jobs at once, and was late, I was running. At least, I was running as much as my pair of four-inch stiletto high heels would allow.
The concrete ledge of the stairs, painted to look like a river of fire, came into perfect perpendicular contact with the exact middle of my shins. I skidded a little, more on the right side than the left, and then came to painful stillness. In no time I was surrounded by expensive wool pinstripe. The scent of good cologne. Was I okay? Did I need assistance? A radio crackled. Should they get the paramedics? No, please, thank you, thank you so much, but I'm fine. I was sure I was bleeding. I hobbled away into the shade of the cherry esplanade. I was wearing fitted black trousers and so could not properly assess the damage to my legs. I tried to walk on, realized I couldn't, told the security guard that I did need the paramedics after all ... then waited a minute. I tried to walk again, found that I could, and asked the guard to cancel the call. I proceeded to the event about gender equality, but more slowly, each step painful and with a distinct note of discord.
This was just a minor incident. It was nothing, really, though my banged-up legs hurt for months. But I was so busy that week, and preoccupied by the sharp ache in my shinbones, that it took me days to even notice the damage to my feet, or how swollen my ankles were, or the strange and tender green bruise that bloomed around the medial malleolus, that protruding bone of the ankle at the end of the tibia, which darkened into gray and blue and then, finally, purple, terminating in a wavy line of separation like a water stain on upholstered furniture.
Still, without high heels, at work I didn't feel quite put together. Like a man might feel who has forgotten to put on his necktie in a boardroom full of men in neckties. Maybe this was crazy, since not every woman where I worked even wore high heels. Samantha Power, then the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, frequently dashed about the building in pantsuits and running shoes, as authoritative as anyone. Maybe I needed the Pavlovian pinched toe and lifted arch, or the strike of the heel's shaft, muted on carpet or magnified on marble, to feel fully in command of my own idea of a professional self. They made me feel powerful in a womanly way; suited up, compliant, like I was buckled in to the workday. Perhaps I had something to prove; or perhaps I had been made, repeatedly, to think that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "High Heel"
Copyright © 2019 Summer Brennan.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part One The Garden of Forking Paths
Part Two Daphne in Flight, Daphne in Flower
Part Three Ashes, Sea Foam, Glass, Gold
Part Four The Minotaur
Part Five A Goddess At The End of the World