High Heels and Low Corsets

For the last week or so I have been staring at everybody’s shoes. I really like shoes.

It’s not a fetish thing, although please don’t think that I don’t like fetishism. Especially if shoes are involved.

I was asked last week why anyone would ever go out in high heels in London at all.

I do see that it is madness- there’s so much time spent on squishy tubes and lurching night buses, and sometimes you’re expected to face cobbles.

But then conversation turned to whether high heels are anti-feminist.

My grandma (Feminist icon #1) speaks about having to make meals and be treated like dirt, whilst also feeling that she was expected to be on stupid, painful stilts.

But times are different-ish. Things have changed, sort of, and I have three pairs of high heels. One pair of these I have never worn but they are beautiful, actual stilettos. Another pair are ridiculously comfortable and I once made a surprise 24 hour journey from Munich to London in the gas cloud without once taking them off and without my feet smelling that bad when I finally got home. I went out on Friday to a soul and Motown (ie, lots of dancing, no sitting) night which I advise to everyone, and I wore the third pair of heels, which are in the category of ‘pretty but ouch’:

Two of my female friends from uni said that they never wear heels on feminist grounds (as in feminism is their reason for not wearing them, not that they refrain from wandering into feminist collectives in heels). In their eyes, heels aren’t about height but about pushing your bum up and your tits out for men, which prompted an introspection for my reasons for wearing them. But, no, thought about it, and it wasn’t for men. I just like them. I like clip-clopping and I like feeling that I have mastered some evasive femininity qualification that eluded me for so long. I don’t respect the finishing school stack of books on your head style behaviour, that’s not what books are for, but if I had to do that I could. And my friends couldn’t so maybe they’re just jealous?

My old office was also full of women repulsed by high heels, they were definitely on the collective hate list. One key point for the hate was practical: they make you very easy to push over. Yes, it’s true. Walking home, I feel safer in my steel capped DMs. So maybe I should stick to those. But they make me feel clunky and clumsy and they take ages to put on, though they are great for camping and travelling, and made of vegetarian material. And isn’t letting the threat of male violence define the outfit counter-productive anyway? Worrying too much about the problem making it even stronger. I feel like if we say that some fashion items make a woman vulnerable, well, it’s just a bit too close to ‘she was wearing a miniskirt/drunk she was asking for it/deserved it’.

But at the same time we do need to protect ourselves a little. There are creepy people and I don’t want to be easily pushed over! Although couldn’t I also do some damage with high heels? Buffy staked a vampire with her heel once and it was just so cool. Feminist icon # 2! Feminist icons come in all forms and you can’t judge mine.

I suppose the crucial thing is being able to go home feeling safe, feeling that you could run away if you needed to. Kicking off shoes and walking barefoot just doesn’t feel great with broken glass, gum and piss to contend with. So the maxim to universalise would be ‘if wearing high heels for an evening, have flat shoes in bag for later’. But I knew that already. Should I be wearing the high heels in the first place is the issue.

What defence can there really be for high heels when they are so painful and damaging for the arches of your feet? One friend asked whether damaging your body and causing pain for beauty, isn’t that, well, sort of close to foot binding? Beauty is not pain. What about all that men love pain/war/blood (but not menstrual blood) stuff? Feminist fashion surely shouldn’t be painful.

So this brings me towards the end of the night, changed into my flats, walking through Camden to the night bus stop, feet aching. Women were spilling and sprawling all over the streets in really, really high heels, and, quite frankly, balancing is hard enough when drunk without making yourself do it with only the support of spindly stilt-ettos. One lady I used to work with thought that high heels were really a way for women to be vulnerable for each other, as in ‘please hold me up, I need your support’, a way to physically reach out for cuddles at the end of the night. But in reality stumbling about drunk is not the best way to ask for respect, and respect is what leads to cuddles, no?

Then, there in Camden, the other thought happened. Would it be true to say that generally middle class girls go out in flats and working class girls go out in heels? I’d be one of the rule-proving exceptions apparently. But the question turned up: were my friends just being classist? And we wear other “non-feminist” items. Like corsets. Boned corsets actually move your internal organs out of place. Ones that aren’t boned still romanticise this process and hark back to a time where women were corseted and people used words like “hark”.

Surely high heels needn’t be patriarchal. Maybe more men in heels is the answer! On a recent student protest there was, a little way in front of us, a transvestite in the highest heels I have ever seen a real person march in, in the longest march I have ever been on. Feminist icon #3. Trooper. Surely high heels can make you a little taller, so that men aren’t looking down on you? They make you walk with poise, and if being in them gives you confidence how can that be anti-feminist?

Corsets and high heels are gorgeous fashion items, and I don’t want to part with them. Although maybe I just think this because I’ve internalised societies patriarchal values… So I’m unsure. Maybe it’s a case of the more choices a woman has the better and I should write ‘this is what a feminist walks like’ on my heels. Or maybe heels are part of the problem… Maybe it depends on the woman and the situation, maybe it just depends on the shoes.

I know that our bodies and our clothes are political and as a feminist most of the time I feel that the fucking fashion industry, the fucking stores and of course the fucking fucking magazines are against me. I actually once walked into Topshop and said ‘oh they’ve started making baby clothes’ and they hadn’t. Those were supposed to be people sized clothes. That was the last time I went in there.

…But the shoes? Please not the shoes. Don’t take the shoes.

7 thoughts on “High Heels and Low Corsets

  1. I definitely wear heels for me – they make twirling so much more fun! And you’re right about how if we say certain fashion items make women more vulnerable, it’s close to saying women ask for trouble with said items.

    I have guessed all the feet methinks – Captain Pants are the most amusing!!

  2. Plus, let’s not remove the concept of shoes as Art. And women make good art.
    I do like the idea of writing ‘this is how a feminist walks’ on some heels.

    Great article!

    I personally keep my beautiful heels in my cupboard, or wear them around the house when my self-esteem needs a boost. But by gum, wearing them outside?! There’s mud and cobbles out there!

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  6. I’m so stuck on this one!
    But I think the point your feminist friends are making isn’t that the heels in themselves are evil, but that the benefits you mentioned (being taller to get respect, having mastered some feminine mystique that had eluded you, etc) mean that we are being defined by the heels. Are you less of a woman because you don’t wear them? I started to feel the same way, too, when I finally gave in to them, like, OH YES now I am a woman, see my heels? And then I realized that I was in the trap, they had me, they had sold my brain. Us women ARE beautiful, and we are so many other things, strong, intelligent, talented, creative… in our natural state.

    It’s a double standard where Ginger Roberts and Fred Astaire dance and she does everything backwards in heels. Or male newscasters look like anyone on the street and females look like overdone barbie dolls…

    We’re so used to (as women) seeing women everywhere (on TV, those magazines we loathe, our mothers, in the movies) in make-up and heels, Xena in the stupidest outfit a warrior could ever want (sword right to the heart, anyone?) that sometimes it takes our extremist feminist companions to point out these uncomfortable truths.

    Bottom line: enjoy yourself and don’t let ANYONE define you or put limits/demands on your beauty or sexuality!! 🙂

  7. As a male University academic I note that the old ‘blue stocking’ feminists are reaching retirement and are being replaced by younger women who wear heels much of the time, particularly the Indian, Chinese and Pacific Rim ones. Also, in the Business School, the women who ‘get on’, and now predominate, tend to wear heels and about half of them wear make-up too. These are very intelligent women with PhDs and with published papers. So your idea of it being a class thing certainly doesn’t hold water, particularly when practically all of the ballerina wearing students wear the highest heels when ‘out on the raz’! This now brings me to another more, for you (I suspect), contentious point, they do it to compete with each other, yes, but for male attraction!

    I don’t know why it is, but most feminists seem to have forgotten one very important thing, – the vast majority of women are, at least in part, heterosexual! This means that you need to be visually attractive to make the opposite sex even notice you. These post-feminist girls get it, and they do it knowingly, but on their own terms, – it is their decision, – not the males!

    As a male, I respect power, and attractive women who are also intelligent and confident have power over me, and therefore my respect. Because for all my 154 IQ and my education and professional status, I am still a slave to my visually stimulated sexual identity. My older ‘blue stocking’ female colleagues are also interesting to discuss issues and philosophy with, but like my male colleagues they do not have this power and it only takes the tip-tapping of the heels of a passing visually attractive woman to make my attention wander.

    Oh yes, the vulnerability thing, – emphatically no! I, and most of the males of my acquaintance see the high heel as a possible weapon; one only needs to hear the sound that they make, – the thicker ones clonking and capable of stomping, – the thinner ones tip tapping and capable of piercing. When I was working in the City 20 years ago, we didn’t call the ‘get ahead at any cost’ career women “spike heeled power bitches” for nothing, that was a term of respect for worthy opponents! Heels signify the femme fatal, not the weak and helpless shrinking violet!


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