Once, in my early 20s, I had a panic attack so dramatic that my roommates decided to take me to the emergency room. While the others waited for the taxi and tried to soothe me, one ran upstairs to fetch me some shoes to wear to the hospital. She came down bearing a pair of old Van’s: practical, comfortable. Legend has it that I paused my sobs and gasps just long enough to look at her witheringly and say: “I’m not wearing flats, you freak.”
That’s how it used to be with me and shoes.
It’s hard to believe now, toes waggling happily in my SS19 standard issue Birkenstocks, but once upon a time, I loved a heel. In sixth form I would turn up to 9 am class in hulking great Terry de Havilland x Miss Selfridge wedges. In college, I would pop Ibuprofen in advance of the dance floor. I worked in heels, thundering around my first office job in vertiginous ankle boots, and I played in heels, teetering through my weekends like a baby gazelle in an amateur regional production of The Lion King. Things peaked around 2012, when the most sensible purchase one could make on a shoe shopping trip was a pair of those buckets from toy store that you hold on your feet with string. Bleeding toes were, as they are for prima ballerinas, practically a point of pride.
But not anymore, obviously. For now we are living in the Age Of The Fashion Flat.
It began with oxfords and loafers, segued into velvet slippers, and spawned the sneaker revolution that’s been going strong for several years now. In their bouncy wake we’ve seen hiking boots on the fashion week front rows, the triumphant return of ballet pumps and the proliferation of ugly sandals peeping out happily from beneath the hem of every prairie dress this summer. Even my low wedge Castañer espadrilles have started to seem fussy and try-hard. I wore them to a party the other week and felt, amid all the Supergas and Tevas, as though I’d turned up in a crinoline and a bonnet.
But the interesting thing isn’t that we’ve been abandoning high heels (a 7% drop between 2017 and 2018, according to Mintel). Fashion has always done this – the back and forth, the pendulum swing, the consumerist Newton’s cradle that pushes us eternally from one extreme to the other, skinnies to flares, mini to maxi, heels to flats to heels again.
No, the interesting thing is how many of us aren’t willing to go back. Not now, and maybe not ever. Even when the September issues land and the leaves start to change and fashion decides that we’ve had enough fun and tries to round us up. My feet now scream in silent protest if I so much as look at anything higher than a half-inch flatform. “No,” they’re saying. “Shan’t. You can’t make me.”
While this gradual dissent/descent has been happening for a good few years, it’s only since recently, shuffling into my boyfriend’s pool slides for the fourth time in a week, that the thought struck: will I ever wear high heels again?
I raised the subject on Twitter, and the response was massive. “Now I can’t believe I used to wear heels every day for work”; “I chucked them all bar two pairs”; “Sneakers every day now. So fucking comfy”; “My heels ache and toes throb at the very thought.” Shoe consultant Susannah Davda confirms that the market has changed significantly, at least in the UK and the US. “I think women couldn’t believe their luck,” she says. “We shifted to flats to be on trend, stayed with them for the comfort, and now we’re stubbornly clinging to our lower heeled footwear. We’re asking: Why should we sacrifice comfort for style?”
It’s a question fashion journalist Hannah Rochell, author of book and style blog En Brogue, has been asking for ages. “When I first started my blog in 2012, it was through frustration of actually being able to find well-designed flat shoes,” she says. “But as the flat shoe trend took off, I heard from many women who had been wanting to ditch their heels for years and finally felt like they had the means, as well as the sartorial permission, to do so.”
Not just sartorial permission – professional permission, too. Only the most archaic jobs now demand female employees wear heels, and even their days are numbered thanks to women like Nicola Thorp, who made headlines in 2016 after being sent home from PricewaterhouseCoopers for refusing to ditch her flats. Thorp started a petition that resulted in a parliamentary enquiry – although not yet, infuriatingly, a change in the law. Meanwhile in Japan, the #KuToo campaign is currently pushing for a ban on workplace dress codes that demand high heels ( kutsu is Japanese for ‘shoe’; kutsuu means ‘pain’).
Even weddings, the final footwear frontier, don’t come with an unspoken heel mandate anymore. Brands like EmmyLondon and BHLDN are leading the way with genuinely chic bridal flats, and the requisite bucket of flip-flops for guests could soon go extinct. “Flat shoes can be more tricky to style for formal occasions for sure, but it’s not impossible,” insists 5 ft. 3 in. Rochell. She’s even been a bridesmaid in flats – a pair of yellow pointed Diane von Furstenberg pumps – next to two “nearly 6 ft.” bridesmaids who both wore heels. And finally, according to a survey this year by shoe brand Deichmann, only 29% of British women would now wear heels on an evening out or a first date. It’s taken decades to get here, god bless our soles, but it seems stilettos are no longer synonymous with ‘making an effort’.
For Alisia, 41, the rise of the fashion flat has been a blessed relief. “A few years ago you could have a killer outfit on, but if it was teamed with flats you would be deemed ‘mumsy’ or ‘frumpy’,” she says. “I love that fashion has moved away from the definition of ‘feminine’ being seven-inch demonic heels, and I can still look and feel great in a pretty dress with a pair of Stan Smiths.”
Beyond aesthetics, pain and peril is a common theme. “I used to have a rule that if it was dark outside, I wouldn’t go out in flats,” says Marianna, who once upon a time was so wedded to her seven-inch stilettos that she got a pair of Louboutins tattooed on her leg. “Now, the thought terrifies me.”
Lots of the heel refuseniks I speak to cite pregnancy or motherhood as their watershed moment, when the ability to move around at speed began to feel more important than, say, balancing a tricky hemline. Others tell me an injury forced them temporarily into flats, and in flats they stayed for good – maybe because when you’ve suffered so much pain involuntarily, you’re less likely to choose it of your own free will?
Then there are the injuries caused by heels, from bruised knees and egos to long-term damage. “It turns out years of heels have shortened my hamstrings to, and I quote a surgeon, ‘extreme’ levels,” says Rebecca, a PR manager in luxury hospitality. “I gave up after wearing heels to a wedding and being in such agony I had to borrow the bride’s niece’s running trainers,” says Martha, 35. “I was then diagnosed with an unglamorous ailment, Morton’s neuroma, which makes me feel like I’m permanently stepping on a sharp pebble. It’s hereditary, but hugely exacerbated by wearing heels or shoes that are too tight.”
And, sure, age plays a part too. Like so many women, I can practically draw a line down the middle of my 20s to mark the demise of my good heel years; between dancing in five-inch platforms and lingering in the CVS chiropody section.
But this isn’t the bitter rant of a wizened crone whose bunions won’t let her get away with it anymore. No, it’s the realization that heels might never have been all they were cracked up to be. Even while we cooed over their sculptural beauty and took a perverse pleasure in carrying them, barefoot, into the kebab shop. Perhaps what’s happening now, after a year or two of comfy respite, is that we’re finally able to take a step back and see heels clearly for what they are. Alluring, yes. Fun, sometimes. But absurd.
The new wave of flats are as much a feminist statement as a fashion statement. Several women remarked to me that heels now seem “as bad as foot binding”. Rochell tells me that although high heels were originally designed for men (true story), their swift rejection and women’s long subjection puts towering shoes, for her, “in the same bracket as corsets: as a means of control”. And last month Professor Mary Beard went head-to-head with Manolo Blahnik in a Radio 4 interview, branding his iconic shoes “a symbol of women’s oppression”.
Blahnik’s comeback was a time-old trope: “In high heels, you just feel powerful.”
Do we, Manolo?
It’s certainly what we’ve been taught to believe, ever since we first squished our soft baby arches into a pair of jelly mules. Heels are empowering! Tell your friends! We’ve been fed the message via magazines and books, Marilyn Monroe quotes and movie heroines stepping into their patent red courts before they close a deal or kill a man. High heels are empowering, goes the legend, because they make us stand prouder and walk taller. They force the world to look us in the eye, not pat us on the head. Heels are empowering, just like red lipstick gives you confidence and crusts make your hair curl and carrots help you see in the dark. But every time we’ve slipped into a pair of big heels and felt that small surge of confidence and authority run up our spine, was it real? Or just stiletto-based Stockholm syndrome?
Truth is, heels can make us feel powerful, and they can do the opposite – sometimes both at once. They slow us to a stately, commanding stride, and they threaten to topple us over in the street. They elevate and they debilitate. Even as they boost our ego, they cripple our balls. And I mean the balls of our feet, although perhaps it works either way.
It’s the infernal push-pull of womanhood. “How did heels make me feel? In pain and awkward, if I am being brutally honest,” admits Alisia. “But at the same time incredibly feminine and sexy – even if I was screaming in pain internally.”
“I broke my ankle in platform stilettos at 20, but that still didn’t put me off,” says Sophie, 28. “I love how they look, and I am a feminist, but I still feel like they ‘make’ an outfit.” And yet, she adds, “they’re so impractical the minute you need to do anything outside of looking good.”
Even as I wince at the memory of all the times I fell over in my five-inch stilts, I’m wary of declaring heels stupid, or toxic, or wrong. As with so many trappings of female convention – makeup, bras, waxing off our body hair – the strands of personal choice and societal pressure are woven so tightly together that they’re impossible to unpick. We’re free to love heels, to choose them ‘for ourselves’, but we can’t escape the fact we’ve grown up in a world that tells us tall people are more important, that strutting is sexy and tottering is feminine. That we must ‘lengthen’ our legs, ‘lift’ our ass and perform some visual trickery to make our physical proportions more acceptable to the world. There’s a reason so many of us stand on tiptoe in shop changing rooms, even when our only audience is the mirror.
Of course, there’s plenty of middle ground between flats and five-inchers, a nuance that tends to get lost in the trainers vs stilettos debate. A sturdy mid-heel can be a beautiful thing, as can a hefty flatform. If we’re not quite resigned to a life at ground level, the answer is shoes that feel strong and (I’m sorry) stable – the anarchic clomp rather than the precarious click-clack. At least five women have told me that clogs are the only heels they’ll consider these days. And when we finally fall out of love with Swedish Hasbeens, there’ll be another stompy fave waiting in the wings.
Meanwhile some people are deriving new pleasure from wearing heels, precisely because they no longer feel like they have to. Claire, 32, tells me she’s having a renaissance now she’s in her 30s, has swapped clubbing for restaurants, and can finally afford taxis. “It’s made me really seize that chance and delight in them,” she says.
So are we sounding a death knell for heels? Not quite. Fashion is fickle. Trends will come and go, moods will change and blisters will heal. Spiky stilettos and clodhopping platforms will probably always have a subversive appeal. And if we want to put ourselves on our own little pedestal, well that’s entirely our choice to make.
But the idea that pain, risk and humiliation are a tax we have to pay on power, style and femininity? That could be kicked to the curb.
“When high heels come back on trend, which I’m sure they will, we’ll have higher expectations of how we should feel in them,” predicts Davda. “The future of women’s footwear is comfortable.”
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