Wrapping Stilettos in Foot-Binding Debate

May 16 (Bloomberg) -- Named for a type of dagger with a slender blade, the stiletto’s defining characteristic is not so much the height, but the girth, of its heel.

It was a design innovation, credited to designer Christian Dior and shoemaker Roger Vivier, that arose from postwar plenty, both in the shoemakers’ toolboxes -- the heel was reinforced with metal, heavily rationed during World War II -- and in consumers’ pockets.

It was not an ideal walking shoe, but after years of sacrifice and practicality, women were ready to embrace fashions that signified sex appeal, status and luxury. The stiletto was a new kind of shoe precisely because it was so clearly divorced from function. It was a daring high-wire act demanding confidence and balance.

The stiletto required a shift, a physical adjustment on the part of its wearer: Unlike a sturdy wedge, the tall, thin heel caused enormous pressure to be placed on the ball of a woman’s foot. In 1953, Picture Post magazine published a series of photographs illustrating “The Hazards of the Stiletto Heel,” in which model Jean Marsh demonstrated the perils of walking in the shoes. In one picture, her heel was caught in a manhole cover; in another, she braced for a fall on an uneven sidewalk. Then she rested over a street drain, one shoe removed as she exhaustedly rubbed her ankle.

Walking Challenge

Clearly, moving about in such heels was an acquired skill, not an instinct. Fashion’s new challenges spoke not of Rosie the Riveter’s workplace, but the salon and, often, the boudoir. If a woman couldn’t manage dainty, vertiginous stilettos, well then she hadn’t earned the right to wear them.

The pointy shoe also suggested something smug. Like a car or a diamond ring, the stiletto classified women by economic rank and social ambition.

During the war years, upper-middle-class women worked alongside their blue-collar peers. Afterward, fashion renewed the class divide. Wearing impractical shoes implied that a woman had the time and means to think beyond labor and the mechanics of survival.

It was not the first time in history that footwear signified such distinctions. In Europe, from the 14th through the 17th centuries, women wore a type of shoe that made stilettos look as sensible as loafers. Chopines (known as pianelle or zoccoli in Italy) were slippers with platform soles as high as 20 inches, worn by a woman of superior rank and considerable means. They limited their wearers’ range of motion, and in the most extreme cases, required servants on either side for support.

Dating back further still, Chinese foot binding, which involves reshaping the structure of a young girl’s foot bones, was a mark of distinction for females of a certain class. Beginning as far back as 960 B.C., and outlawed as recently as 1912, this practice all but immobilized a woman but ensured a posh marriage -- and honor for her family.

Like the chopine, the bound foot, called the “lotus foot,” signaled freedom from manual labor. Sexual politics factored into it, too. In one account of the origins of foot binding, Emperor Li Houzhu, also known as Li Yu, who lived in the 10th century, fell in love with a concubine who bound her own feet in order to perform a special lotus dance. Entranced, he insisted she never leave his side.

Fragile, Sexy Feet

From this tale, some say, spread the notion that fragile, stunted feet were sexually attractive to men of high rank, and families of a certain echelon began binding the feet of eligible females. In an alternative history, it was a self-conscious empress who started the trend. Born with a clubfoot, she was said to have forced all the ladies of the court to bind their feet so that her disfigurement would be less conspicuous.

Stilettos echoed these historical fashions, demanding that wearers prize style over mobility. One French demoiselle who bought an embroidered pair from Vivier’s boutique returned them the next day: The beadwork was torn, and the shoes were uncomfortable. After examining the soles, the manager responded, “But Madame, you walked in these shoes.”

After Dior, spindly shoes, made of hand-dyed silk or lavish, supple leather, filled the pages of Vogue. Delicate high heels allowed women to reclaim their femininity without overstepping their husbands: a distinction as potentially wobbly as the shoes themselves.

(Rachelle Bergstein is a writer and editor based in New York. This is the third of five excerpts from her new book, “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us,” which will be published on May 29 by HarperCollins. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 4, Part 5.)

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