from a symbol of the power of men to the strawberry of women


When I brought my newborn from the hospital, I picked out a special outfit for her, including tiny leather moccasins. My husband thought the shoes were a bit silly considering she wouldn’t be able to walk for a year. But that wasn’t the point: most of the shoes we wear in life aren’t designed for walking at all.

An upcoming exhibition at the Museum at FIT, located on the New York campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology, makes me understand. Called Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic, the exhibition reveals that our relationship with the shoe goes far beyond physical functions, fulfilling social and psychological functions as well. The exhibit features over 300 pairs of shoes, boots and sneakers from the MFIT permanent collection and spans nearly 500 years of fashion history. But heels, in particular, stand out as a shoe poorly designed for movement, but very important for social acceptance. And the exhibition reveals how, for the first time in history, we reject the heel as a symbol of gender or class.

[Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

This boot was not made for walking

In some ways, the basic shoe format has not changed much in human history. The oldest known leather shoe, a moccasin found in Armenia and 5,500 years old, was made from a single piece of tanned cowhide, with laces along the front and back seams. back. Archaeologists say the shoe was designed to help people walk long distances over rough terrain, protecting the foot from the cold, as well as rocks and thorny bushes. “It’s amazing how much this shoe looks like a modern shoe! Luxury shoe designer Manolo Blahnik pointed out to National Geographic, when the shoe was first discovered in 2010.

But there’s a big difference between ancient shoes and those designed over the past millennia, says museum director Valerie Steele, co-curator of the exhibit. Over time, shoemakers shifted from fashion to function, which meant they stopped designing shoes that were comfortable or easy to walk on. And that, in turn, has changed the way humans stand and move, as well as their mobility.

The most obvious example is high heels, which generally make walking harder, not easier. Heels were first invented in Persia in the 10th century, and they were originally designed for men. “Wealthy men wore them to give them more height, and when they rode their heels clicked in the stirrups,” Steele explains. “But when Persian royalty traveled to French courts in the 17th century, they brought the trend with them, and soon heels spread among men in European courts.”

Dark brown men’s shoes with red painted heels, 1640-1670, Europe; unknown donor [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

Consider the oldest piece in the collection, a men’s shoe from 1640s Europe. It features a painted red heel and cutouts that expose the top of the foot. The shoe was probably made for a courtier, making him feel taller and more powerful, and signaling his social status. And indeed, heels have always been a status symbol, Steele says, because they reflect that the wearer doesn’t need to perform hard labor or walk where they need to go.

Steele says wealthy women in the courts started wearing heels to get some of the social benefits they accrued. However, women’s shoes had higher and thinner heels than their male counterparts. Steele says it’s probably because people thought they made women’s feet and bodies more feminine. Heels changed a woman’s figure, which some men found attractive, so they became associated with women’s sexuality. “Women’s bodies have always been sexualized and heels have started to be associated with female eroticism,” she says. “It was then that men ditched the heel for more practical flat boots, but women continued to wear them.”

Jack Jacobus, Ltd. black leather boots with red silk lining, 1895-1900, Austria. Gift of the Victoria and Albert Museum [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

In the 1800s, women of all social classes wore heels. Steele says it’s a myth that heels and corsets were only worn by upper-class women; even those who were poor, working in the fields or as servants, felt compelled to wear heels to show that they were also women. And yet, the heels were often an obstacle, making it harder for them to move comfortably. A high-heeled boot from 1895 perfectly illustrates this. It is made by the British cobbler Jack Jacobus, in its Austrian factory, and features a pointed toe and thin heel, which look quite stylish if not particularly comfortable.

Gucci pumps with stiletto heel in red patent leather and silver metal, spring 1998, Italy. Gift of Gucci. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

The persistence of the heel

In many ways, it’s strange that women’s heels have persisted into the 21st century, given how uncomfortable they are. But as the exhibit shows, heels have dominated women’s fashion for the past century. Some of the most famous shoe designers of our time – Roger Vivier, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen – all specialize in super high heels. A pair recently acquired by Maison Martin Margiela is eight inches tall. Another, from Christian Louboutin, combines an extremely high heel with a ballerina toe, making it nearly impossible to get into.

Christian Louboutin, “Fetish Ballerine” pumps in black patent leather, 2014, France. Donated by Christian Louboutin. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

Although these are examples of high fashion, heels were also ubiquitous in everyday footwear in the 20th century. And while doctors have pointed out that heels are not only uncomfortable, but can even permanently damage the foot, many women felt compelled to wear them to work and to events, just as women did in the 18th and 19th centuries. As recently as 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers required women to wear heels at work, prompting an employee to petition the UK government to make it illegal to include heels in a dress code.

John Lobb, Brown leather brogues for men, 1965-1975, England. Gift of Margaret Kaplan. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

Meanwhile, men’s shoes are becoming more and more After comfortable. In the 19th century, the Oxford, which features a leather upper that can be laced up and a sole that provides support, became popular and still remains the standard for men’s dress shoes. And in the 20th century, men began to wear sports shoes on the tennis and basketball courts and in everyday life, and even with formal wear. Sneakers, designed to optimize movement and comfort, are now the most common men’s footwear in the world.

Balenciaga, “Triple S” sneakers in multicolored leather, suede and mesh, 2018, France. Purchase of the museum. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

In recent decades, in a radical departure from previous centuries, men’s and women’s shoe styles have come together. It’s part of a larger shift in the years following World War II, with women wearing pants, suits, jeans and other clothing traditionally associated with men. And while there are places where women still sometimes feel the need to wear heels, like formal offices and black-tie events, most choose not to wear them every day.

Comfort and ergonomics are now the key considerations when it comes to footwear, which is why sneakers are now the most popular footwear on the market for both genders, and Nike is the most valuable company in the world. Many of the most popular shoe startups of recent years, like Allbirds and Birdies, have focused on designing shoes that support the foot and body. And many designers are now creating high-end versions of sneakers that are both wearable and fashion-forward, including Balenciaga and Yeezy. “Now you see women wearing sneakers on the red carpet,” Steele says. “For decades, heels were the only option.”

But the symbolic power of the heel has not disappeared. Designers continue to create elaborate and fantastic high heels, and consumers continue to buy them. Steele says there is a mythology in Western culture about the magical power of shoes, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, which even today tends to manifest itself in high heels. “There’s this idea that the right pair of fabulous high heels will transform your life,” Steele says. “They will find you a job or help you find a partner. The difference is that wearing high heels is now a choice, not a social obligation.


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