Not everyone was a big fan of the stiletto. Just like Christian Dior’s voluptuous, bell-shaped skirts, the tall, thin heels drew criticism even at the height of their popularity.
In a primer called “The Essential Eve: A Guide to Women’s Perfection,” a doctor advised: “Excessively high heels will always be a source of danger to feet and eventually to health.” Wearing such shoes causes the calf muscles to contract so much, he said, “it becomes almost impossible to walk.”
A New York Times headline in May of 1955 warned that “Posture Is Affected by Size of the Heels.” Yet, in this article, Dr. Gerald Warner of Buffalo, New York, recommended that for the sake of their carriage, tall women should wear high heels while short women should stick to low ones.
Warner also contradicted the wisdom that heel enthusiasts should sometimes opt for sneakers or flats to give their arches a break. “Above all,” he said, “women should wear the same size heels consistently.”
Still, in the 1950s, many women varied their heels. Throughout the decade, housewives wore saddle shoes and ballet flats during the day and swapped them for more flattering shoes when their husbands arrived home. Flats were also trendy among teenage girls. Bobby-soxers were named for the way they rolled their socks down over their Mary Janes or saddle shoes.
For beatniks, style was an obvious manifestation of countercultural ideals, a way of rejecting the structured, starchy fashions of their parents. Men grew beards, wore untucked shirts and workingman’s denim, as well as European-influenced accessories like off-center berets and dark glasses. Women with loose-hanging hair wore pants and dark, neutral colors to prove they were absolutely not blossoming flowers. On their feet were flat, comfortable shoes that snubbed their mothers’ balancing acts.
If “the girl with low/ and sensible heels/ is likely to pay/ for her bed and meals” -- as the Saturday Evening Post warned -- so be it.
“Funny Face,” the 1957 movie starring Audrey Hepburn, told the story of Jo Stockton, a mousy -- and mouthy -- Greenwich Village bookstore clerk turned reluctant “It Girl” model, after a demanding fashion magazine editor discovers her, and introduces her to a photographer. (Fred Astaire, channeling the legendary Richard Avedon, does the rest.)
The plot was hardly beatnik-friendly: Jo stands by her anti-fashion philosophy to a point but, after learning her academic idol is a cad, ultimately finds love with the older photographer. The last shot is of Jo in a New Look-influenced Hubert de Givenchy wedding gown.
Hepburn, with her coltish figure and intelligent doe eyes, was an actress drastically unlike Marilyn Monroe. Both actresses, however, had a Cinderella-like relationship with Hollywood master shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo. For Hepburn, he created elegant, restrained, “sensible” shoes. At 5 feet 7 inches, the actress was tall for a woman of her generation and had long, slim feet, which Ferragamo said were “in perfect proportion to her height.
For a dance number in “Funny Face,” Ferragamo designed a pair of black suede slip-on loafers to go with Hepburn’s Givenchy-designed black turtleneck sweater and cropped black stovepipe pants. But Hepburn balked at wearing the spotless white socks meant to go with the outfit. How could she draw gleaming arrows toward her sizeable feet? Yet director Stanley Donen wouldn’t back down, and Hepburn wore them. After seeing the film for the first time, she wrote to Donen, “You were right about the socks. Love, Audrey.”
The ’Beat Look’
After “Funny Face,” beatnik-inflected styles entered the vernacular of haute couture. In the late 1950s, after Yves Saint Laurent became head of Christian Dior’s fashion house, he presented the “Beat Look,” a collection of turtlenecks and biker jackets. It was an early instance of street style affecting high fashion. Unfortunately for Saint Laurent, Vogue criticized the experiment as designed for young women “possessed of superb legs and slim, young goddess figures,” and it cost him his job.
These midcentury pop-culture moments marked stilettos as flirtatious and feminine, and flats as quirky and intellectual. Flats became the purview of the alternative youth culture.
The 1950s were a historically rigid decade, in which women could be either a lonely intellectual or a vapid sexpot. The question of whether one could be both an Audrey and a Marilyn didn’t emerge until the 1960s, when the sexuality of the stiletto and the practicality of the flat merged in the low-heeled boot -- made for flirting, butt-kicking and, most important, walking.
(Rachelle Bergstein is a writer and editor in New York. This is the fourth 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 3, Part 5.)
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