Thursday, March 10, 2011

The High Price of High Heels

The High Price of High Heels

In a battle between what's fashionable and what's practical, how can anyone figure out women's footwear in the 21st century?

Fashion revolves while it evolves; the journey of the high heel is no different. In the last 40 years, various styles of high heels, some of which reflect earlier eras and some of which are entirely original creations of the time, have fallen in and out of favor. The most common characteristic of the various styles is their pure impracticality. Furthermore, there are health studies that continually emerge that outline the detrimental effects heels have on the body, most importantly the foot. This, however, has not stopped the mass popularity of heeled shoes. The question is; why do women put themselves through the pain and risk of wearing heels?

Before we can understand high heels and the debate that surrounds them today, we must understand the evolution of this iconic fashion piece and how they came to be.

Heel History

Interestingly enough, while many feminists debate about the social pressures there are for women to wear heels and sexuality that surround these seductive shoes, they were originally worn by men. It is believed that the first heeled shoes were worn by Egyptian Butchers to elevate their feet from the mess of their job back as early as 4,000 BCE. The journey of the heel continued, and in 200 BCE heels were worn by Roman actors and were called kothorni. They then resurfaced as a purely practical item again in the 1600s when it was added to men’s shoes to help keep their feet in the stirrups when riding. Riding boots are still heeled today for safety and practicality purposes.

It was the 1500s, however, that saw the birth of women’s high heels as a fashion piece. In 1533 the first women’s heel was designed to lengthen the legs. Notable iconic figures, who served as catalysts to the evolution of the high heel as we know it today include: Catherine d’Medici, Mary Tudor and Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette even wore two-inch heels to her execution, and for the Sophia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, Manolo Blahnik designed over 100 pairs of shoes

From the 1850s to the 1950s the height of the heel remained at about two inches. In the 1950s, however, icons such as Marilyn Monroe aided in furthering the evolution of the heel, with the fashionable and arguably most iconic style: the stiletto. Also in fashion at the time was the kitten heel, which looked much like a miniature and was favored by Audrey Hepburn.

The 1970s saw another dramatic turn in heel style when the slim stiletto was shunned for the chunky platform sole. This was the new breed of the kothorni shoes of earlier centuries, and was worn by both men and women. The 1980s opted for sky high heels, and the 1990s returned to a lower heel, though many began to favor flats.

Heels in the 21st Century

Since the turn of the century, many different styles, ranging from very low to extremely high heels have swayed in and out of popularity in the fashion world, but the heel was constant nonetheless.

The simple fact about high heels is that in addition to making women taller, high heels force the back to arch, pushing the bosom forward and the buttocks rearward, thus accentuating and elongating the female form. In a time where image is everything, we are constantly trying to find ways to improve our appearance, and a high heel is a staple piece in every woman’s wardrobe for that very reason.

People choose specific shoes and styles to fulfill a variety of physical, psychological and social needs. When you get dressed everyday, your needs are fulfilled to different degrees based on what you place as priority in life. Most people tend to choose clothes based off of physical need (i.e. the need for comfort). There are, however, many people who choose their shoes purely based off of what they look like, which can fulfill their psychological and social needs.

Your shoes, as with all your clothing, present an image. In many cultures, a certain height of heel represents your social status or class. Throughout history, shoes in general have typically served as markers of gender, class, race, and ethnicity. While societies around the world have their own cultural connotations associated with different styles of shoes, the high heel, particularly the stiletto, is known worldwide for its leisure, sexuality, and sophistication.

In the 21st century all heels have their place in women's wardrobes, even high-heeled flip-flops. While the majority of women have heels they can actually wear, there are some who appreciate footwear as a form of art and enjoy heels purely for aesthetic purposes. Take for example the Alexander McQueen creations on the runway for Fall/Winter ’10. While they were interesting, artistic, and beautiful – McQueen wasn’t suggesting masses of women should sport this style.

To Each Her Own

Different styles appeal to different people. Some view footwear as practical, while some view it as a piece of art. Regardless, virtually every woman has some form of a heel in her closet; even the creatures of comfort. Ugg boots are synonymous with being comfortable, and even they have recently added a heeled boot to their collection. While many argue about the negative affects both socially and physically that high heels have on women, it is important to remember that fashion is a highly personal yet very public thing. While some might hate one style, another person may love it. Everyone has different shapes to their feet (high arch, flat foot), and everyone has different taste and preference.

While we can speculate about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ when it comes to footwear, it’s truly a matter of personal preference. One must understand why we put high heels on our shoes in the first place, and learn to let people choose for themselves how to let their feet live. It is important to understand both the negative and positive effects of high heels, and decide whether or not being four inches closer to heaven with the help of your heel is worth the possible risk. Sarah Jessica Parker of Sex and the City claims to have ruined her feet for fashion, and every woman must decide for herself how high is too high a price.

There aren’t many people in the world today who wear heels for practical purposes, cowboys and equestrians may be among the very few. However, the debate rages on surrounding the negative effects heels have on society, and women in particular. This ember of debate will continue to envelop the kindling that society provides and will not be extinguish until the heel is no longer a part of mainstream society. Some women wear heels because they like them, while others might need to for work. Therefore, whatever purpose one might have in wearing heels; take time to understand the possible risks involved. What is important to remember is that while we are very heavily influenced in making the fashion choices that we do, it is simply that: a choice.

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