High heels find their origins rooted in mechanical utility. It was the 10th-century Persian soldiers who wore them to secure their feet in stirrups while travelling to distant lands to defend against enemies. Over time, this mechanical significance evolved into a symbolic function, and high heels became associated with status, gaining popularity among European aristocrats. While men preferred block heels, women opted for thinner ones that accentuated their bodies, leading to the association of high heels with eroticism.
As a result, high heels were transitioned from the masculine domain of comfort and utility to women, limiting their mobility and restraining their movement, serving the comfort and utility of the masculine psyche.
As high heels entered the realm of women's fashion, aristocratic women showcased higher stature than those from the lower classes. This situation revealed a contrast of comfort; the upper-class women felt comfortable within their homes but not in their bodies, while the lower-class women faced bodily discomfort due to societal exploitation.
Throughout history, the meaning associated with high heels has changed, transitioning along with societies and varying across different sections. They have been worn by women of upper-class households as well as by women reduced to mere sexual objects, depending on the context and economic value associated with them.
A study by Connell, suggests that shoes play a role in "emphasized femininity" and contribute to "doing gender." While high heels were once considered oppressive, they are now more of a choice than a social obligation. For some, high heels act as a constraint, while for others, they offer an escape from monotonous lives. However, those who are deprived of wearing them, either due to physical constraints or financial constraints, feel like they have failed to conform to societal gender norms.
It is intriguing to note that gender itself is a socially constructed phenomenon, unlike biological sex. The societal construction of female discomfort runs so deep that even though it may feel like a choice, women have been programmed to desire wearing high heels, as Rachelle Bergstein wrote in “Women from the Ankle Down.”
While norms and value systems put an obligation on women to dress a certain way and wear a certain kind of footwear, the Cinderella story where the heels were attached to meanings of mobility, not just in height but also in authority, with the coming of capitalism and its advocacy of free choice, the discomfort was hidden behind style and couture, economic value, and luxury brands. The cheaper copies of the same were then worn by women of the lower sections aspiring to be mobile, equally unaware of the invisible agendas.
Nonetheless, various studies have also showcased that heels worn by women in professional spaces become symbolic of power, claiming that even in discomforting constraints of patriarchy, a woman ably succeeds, also allowing her to be in an egalitarian or higher position than her male counterparts. However, as per McRobbie, stilettoes and pencil skirts only act as a masquerade for women in workspaces so that the relative masculinity created by patriarchy is not threatened.
Summer Brenan, in her book High Heels, mentions, “Sensible shoes are unfeminine and feminine shoes are not sensible, therefore, to be feminine is to be without sense.”
Such conflicting ideas associated with high heels have often put women in a dilemma. While it is important to note that empowerment for different women may have varied meanings, the ambiguity created around heels arises due to the conflict between patriarchal expectations and the attempts of negotiation by women who wear these heels, attempting to bargain with patriarchy.
If one then takes a closer look, one finds a conflict of intersectional depravity created by these heels. The sexual subordination of women, along with division along class lines, also presents an opportunity to claim power and authority. However, one must be extremely careful about narratives that inspire women to wear heels, as their origin might be a product of patriarchal forces.
Nonetheless, today, as dynamism seeps into clothing and footwear, there is a blur in the boundaries that have divided fashion and function. Today, power finds itself synthesised with comfort, as sneakers arrive with platforms, for both men and women, becoming a symbol of utilitarian vision and thus protesting against the historical exploitation associated with high heels, then attempting to draw a narrative that benefits both men and women. High heels today then become a marker of comfort.
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