This is the second post of a three-part series, based on Bad Shoes & The Women Who Love Them, on using your head when choosing your shoes.
Dominatrix heels studded with spikes. Stilettos with bondage-inspired ankle straps. Over-the-knee, skin-tight boots with five-inch heels.
No, this is not the set of a pornographic video. These are shoes that ordinary women wear today. They are so open and revealing, with heels so high, it's difficult to imagine that anyone other than strippers and sex workers could wear them without irony. On the other end of the spectrum, flip-flops, too, punctuate a state of undress. The foot in a flip-flop is practically naked. Whether high or low, women's shoes are oozing in sex appeal.
Believe it or not, this is nothing new. For centuries, shoes have been a sexual prop. Prostitutes have long been at the vanguard of footwear fashion. In fifteenth-century Italy, shoemakers created an eroticized platform shoe for women called the chopine. The height of chopines put today's Louboutins to shame. Eleven-inch platforms were not unusual, and the tallest surviving pair is twenty inches tall. Originally they were created to keep one's feet out of the dirt and mud on the streets, but Venetian courtesans adopted an extravagant form of chopine as their trademark. This made it scandalous for "respectable" women to wear them, but women across the social spectrum did just that anyway.
When Manet unveiled his painting Olympia in 1863, the art establishment was horrified. Olympia, you see, is a courtesan lying back and gazing directly at the viewer (suggesting that the viewer is her next client). And what is Olympia wearing? Nothing, except for a ribbon around her neck--and high-heeled mules. When Playboy was inaugurated in 1953, the voluptuous "girls next door" were also naked but for their stilettos.
In the 1980s, when many women entered the workforce for the first time and didn't know what to wear to look professional, John T. Molloy advised them to adopt the "power suit" look. A wardrobe consultant and author of The Women's Dress for Success Book, he told women to wear a conservative skirt-suit with plain, medium-height pumps in a dark color. This look, he promised, "will give businesswomen a look of authority, which is precisely what they need. If women are to enjoy widespread success in all industries, they must adopt this uniform. It is their best hope."
Molloy believed that this approach would make career women appear serious, modest, professional--yet feminine at the same time. But women didn't want to look uptight. They took some of Molloy's advice--shoulder pads, anyone?--and ditched the rest. Sneaker-clad professional women changed into stilettos when they arrived at the office.
Today, women in many industries wear sexually suggestive shoes to work every day. They put on sneakers only during workouts and commute in shoes with "toe cleavage," the exposure of a hint of a woman's toes when her shoe is cut low in the toe box. They insist on wearing sexually provocative shoes from morn till night.
"It used to be that people said, 'You look pretty' or 'You look beautiful,'" observes Elizabeth Semmelhack, chief curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. "Now it's 'You look hot' or 'You look sexy.'" Whether consciously realized or not, a woman wears high heels to assert her identity as a sexual being. Heels change a woman's posture, making her body look more curvaceous because the pelvis and bust are forced to tilt forward to compensate for the shift in balance. Her legs seem longer, and her gait, sexier. There's a reason that sex workers always wear heels.
I'm not a prude, and if a woman wants to wear "bad" shoes that make her look like a professional pole dancer, I am most certainly not going to police her. My concern is that women don't realize that their shoes are "bad" for their health. When worn on a regular basis, they cause serious foot deformities--unsexy conditions such as bunions, hammertoes, and pinched nerves. High-heeled shoes force a woman to walk on the balls of her feet, which leads to misalignment of the structure of the feet. Ironically, over time, gorgeous shoes create ugly feet, not to mention pain that shoots from the foot to the knee to the hip to the back.
Fetish-themed shoes, then, really are masochistic. Wouldn't a true dominatrix do better to wear shoes she can strut in without tottering?
Coming next: Part 3--Shoes Wisely: How to Shoe Shop
Part 1, "Put Down That Armadillo Shoe! Don't Be a Shoe Dupe," appeared on the Huffington Post on 5/17/10.