High Heels, Femininity and International Women’s Day

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From the Bata Shoe Museum. Silk shoes with yellow silk covered heels.
Possibly French, 1760s.

In honor of this year’s International Women’s Day, I attended a lecture put on by Herstories Cafe. It happened last Wednesday night at the Bata Shoe Museum (reason enough to attend, in my opinion!) and featured senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack speaking about the history of the high heel. To supplement her already-fascinating topic, Semmelhack had an awesome slideshow that juxtaposed historical images (paintings, photographs, advertisements) with images from shoes in museum’s collection.

There was so much to consider about shoes and their role in history, especially women’s history, that I’d never thought twice about before. Semmelhack traced different reasonings for different types of shoes in history. For example, during the French Revolution, fancy, high heeled brocade shoes were rejected in order for the wearer to distance herself as far from Marie Antoinette’s lavish image as possible. One of the things I found most interesting was the portrayal of suffragettes and their footwear; the stereotypical unfeminine woman who wanted women’s rights, vs. the superficial beauty who only cared to wear pretty shoes instead of being able to vote. Suffragettes of the day struck a balance between these two stereotypes to be taken seriously, which resulted in a high heeled shoe with masculine influences. This demonstrated that women could wear heels while getting down to business and retain their femininity.

Even today there are so many interpretations of the high heel and what it symbolizes. Women who wear heels are seen as powerful, especially when the heels are red. An interesting stat that I took home with me was that with each inch of heel, a women’s salary increased by over $700. Something interesting to bear in mind when going to job interviews, I suppose! But wherever this stat came from, and whether or not it is completely accurate, there is something to be said about women wearing heels and the unfortunate stereotype that all women are obsessed with shoes.

As with the suffragette example, the idea of women being obsessed with shoes over the more “important” (and important can mean different things for different people) things in life can have negative repercussions. This gender stereotype is reinforced again and again on movies and in TV, probably most notably in Sex & the City. Especially when Carrie realizes that she has spent over $40,000 on shoes, declaring that she will literally be the old lady who lives in her shoes. Don’t we all know someone who constantly declares their love of shoes and their obsession with buying them?

The whole idea of feminism is that women should be free to do whatever they want, gender stereotypes be damned. If a woman wants to spend all of her money on shoes, that’s her choice. But perhaps this narrow idea of women who live for shoes and shoes alone needs to be greatly reduced in popular culture. Women need to be taken seriously, and I think this unfair and often untrue stereotype, often hinders this.Herstories Cafe

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