Feel for Heel Allowed Women to Do Boardroom Deal

Before Manolo Blahnik was a famous shoemaker, he was an imaginative boy growing up in the Canary Islands with a chic mother who inspired his nascent love of art. In the early 1970s, after studying literature and architecture in Geneva, he put on his best red-and-white gingham suit and approached Vogue editor Diana Vreeland to show her his work.

Among sketches for the set of a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Blahnik included playful drawings of fashion accessories. After appraising his work, Vreeland offered her verdict:

“I think you should concentrate on shoes,” she told him.

Blahnik listened, found a job designing footwear for a London boutique and, by 1972, landed his first major commission to create the runway shoes for English designer Ossie Clark’s spring-summer collection. Blahnik drew seasonally inspired two-tone green high-heeled sandals with ankle ties that crisscrossed up the calf and dripped with red plastic cherries, and a pair of electric blue open-toed pumps with red straps and 7-inch rubber heels.

The young shoemaker found the then-popular chunky platforms awkward and oppressive and favored shoes that made a woman’s foot look delicate. Unfortunately, on the catwalk, his springy heels buckled and Clark’s models couldn’t make it to the end. Blahnik understood that his technical expertise did not yet live up to his creative abilities, so he left London for Northampton -- the center of English shoemaking -- to study craftsmanship.

Blahnik’s Ascent

It wasn’t long before he rebounded. In 1974, the handsome designer appeared on the cover of British Vogue. The next year, he created the delicate gold sandals Bianca Jagger wore on her 30th birthday, riding a white horse into Studio 54. And by 1979 he opened a boutique in the U.S.

Blahnik’s shoes appealed to elegant women willing and able to pay top dollar for quality. He became familiar to the powerful women who ascended the corporate ladder in the 1970s and ’80s, women willing to invest in heels that communicated their authority. The new power pumps weren’t sexless, but they weren’t provocative either: Women in the workplace kept their toes covered and stuck to simple materials like matte leather with few embellishments. Shiny satin and buckles, studs and bows were for evening only.

Heel height was crucial, not too high or too low. Female executives wanted to be taken seriously without compromising their femininity. Heels also leveled the playing field, enabling women to stand eye to eye with their male colleagues.

In his 1975 book “Dress for Success,” style consultant John T. Molloy popularized the idea of “power dressing”: choosing clothes to communicate authority. For women, he recommended tailored suits in neutral or dark colors; clean, mid-length haircuts; minimal cosmetics (lipstick and a light coating of mascara); and simple, closed-toe pumps with inch-and-a-half heels. For both men and women, he was decidedly anti-fashion, and he came down particularly hard on women’s shoes, calling the towering platform “the most preposterous thing manufactured for a woman since the chastity belt.”

By the late 1970s and early ’80s, a more modern style of footwear -- the sneaker -- challenged even the corporate power pump for attention. Sneaker technology and design advanced far beyond the days when a few panels of canvas were stitched to a rubber sole. Now women could buy compact, high-performance “athletic shoes” that matched a new aggressiveness in American life.

Birth of Nike

In 1972, William Bowerman, the University of Oregon track coach, and his former star runner Phil Knight unveiled a new line of Nike footwear. Named for the Greek goddess of victory, these shoes were designed specifically for runners. An art student at Portland State University contributed the swoosh, and a phenomenon was born.

Eventually, Nike patented “Air,” which used lightweight foam materials and trapped pockets of pressurized gas for increased mobility and comfort. Suddenly, even nonathletes who cared little about a shoe’s performance found that for comfort, athletic shoes couldn’t be beaten.

The sneakers’ popularity spiked in early 1980, after employees of New York City’s Transport Workers Union walked off their jobs, leaving subways and buses idle for 11 days, and commuters were forced to get to work by foot. Many women who were accustomed to riding to work in heels chose to walk in sneakers, tucking their pumps in their briefcases -- and they continued to do so when the transit system was up and running again.

There remained that class of women who wore spike heels, unconcerned with the vicissitudes of travel or weather, because a ride was always just a phone call or an arm gesture away. Their shoes communicated that they could afford pedicures, foot massages and apartments in neighborhoods where safety wasn’t a concern. But sports shoes were the greater emblem of the era.

In 1981, when singer Olivia Newton-John released her single “Physical,” she may have been dressed like an aerobics queen, but there was no mistaking what she was singing about: “There’s nothing left to talk about / unless it’s horizontally . . .” Suddenly a woman could be as assertive as a man. Money was the engine of the 1980s, and women had some of their own.

Reebok, a British athletic-shoe company transplanted to Massachusetts, proclaimed, “Life is not a spectator sport.” And boy, did women listen.

(Rachelle Bergstein is a writer and editor in New York. This is the last 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 4.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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