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What Do High Heels Stand For In 2016?

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Victoria Beckham has hung up her stilettos. In the past fortnight Fiona Bruce set tongues wagging when she wore trainers to present the BBC News At Ten while Nicola Gavins' Facebook post of her friend's bloodied feet went viral after she criticised a Canadian restaurant for forcing female staff to wear high heels. And last week, London temp worker Nicola Thorp dominated headlines, after she was sent home from PricewaterhouseCoopers without pay, for refusing to wear a high-heeled shoe. Welcome to 2016: the year footwear got political.

Throughout history, heels have meant many things to many groups of people. And both men and women have worn them. Long before they were associated with fashion and femininity, they were used by cavalries in battle so they could stand more securely in their stirrups and aim better at their enemies. And in the hundreds of years since, they’ve had many more roles: they’ve been a symbol of power, a measure of status, and even a porn film prop.

Louis XIV famously wore high heels and during his reign the taller the shoe, the higher the position of the wearer. The less practical they were to walk in, the more important you were because people who can’t walk properly can’t work either. For a French King, waited on by minions, this was effective in asserting the order of things but for a temp worker who's on her feet all day? Not so much.

After a long time in vogue, heels finally went out of fashion during the Enlightenment. As rationality and science become more important, people were less interested in prancing around in shoes that prevented them from walking more than four metres at time. Men began to pride themselves with being practical. Frivolous clothes did not equate to education, reason and intelligence - all revered, male qualities (and as the lack of diversity in much of the men’s fashion industry would attest, this is still largely the case.)

In her book Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe, Elizabeth Semmelhack argues that it was pornography that led to high heels eventually being associated with women – and sex. When photography became easily accessible, the modern porn industry was born, and heels were used to make women’s legs look longer, which speaks volumes about their current perception problem in the workplace.

Speaking to Refinery 29 about Nicola Thorp’s case, Semmelhack argued that high heels are still perpetuating sexism. "As long as the high heel is linked to desirability and desirability is linked to female success” she said, “then yes, high heels will stand in the way of equality."

Of course, for many women heels are a coveted accessory that can elevate an outfit from average to excellent and give them the extra confidence they want for a big meeting or important interview. But that’s a very personal choice, as the outcry that Thorp’s story caused has highlighted. When it comes to feeling smart, powerful or ready to take on the world, one woman’s Louboutins are another woman’s Nike Air Max.

In the latter camp is Miranda Braithwaite, a 27-year-old City worker. While she wouldn’t wear Air Maxs to work, in her four years working as an underwriter she’s never once put on a pair of heels, nor felt like she had to. “I understand that some workplaces have dress codes and that she [Nicola] was expected to be smart” she says. “But I don’t believe that the only smart shoes a women can wear are heels.”
And then there’s another question, made more pertinent by our changing perceptions of gender stereotypes. If heels really were linked to power and success, then wouldn’t men be wearing them too? There’s still little crossover between ‘women’s clothes’ and ‘men’s clothes’, particularly in the workplace, despite certain high street chains’ attempts to cash in on gender fluidity (Zara launched their first genderless collection earlier this year). In general, men and women’s fashions are still pretty different.

One man who enjoys bending the ‘rules’ is 28-year old community manager Caner Daywood. “I started wearing heels in my early twenties” says Caner. “As my style was evolving past the conventions of male trends I wanted to feel more powerful, self-aware and confident, so I started wearing Cuban heeled boots then started moving into stilettos as I got braver within my own aesthetic.”

Despite it not being the norm yet, Caner hopes it will soon be, at the least, more accepted. “To be honest, I don't care as us drag queens have always been outside the norm and that's how we like it,” he explains. “It's just that other people want to join us here and don't know how.”

Man or woman, it’s safe to say that most of us agree on one thing: heels make you look good. And we should be able to wear them because we want to, and enjoy it. “I have 54 pairs of shoes and choose them based on whether they go with my outfit and who I’m going to meet that day” agrees Nadya Powell, managing director of creative company Sunshine.

“It’s 100% my choice” she says. “And it should be no other way. I’ve never been someone who feels more powerful or confident because of them. Quite simply, if you are physically uncomfortable or don’t feel confident in what you’re wearing, how you do your job will be affected in a negative way.”

Of course the meanings we associate with a type of shoe are always evolving. Anyone working in a creative industry will be used to seeing colleagues in trainers, jeans and whatever they feel comfortable in that day. Katie Harland spotted the lack of fun, comfortable and smart-ish shoes while working in advertising and launched her shoe start-up Rogues shortly after.

“Shoes are a fashion commodity so they should make you feel good” offers Harland. “Whatever footwear you choose you should feel happy in them. One thing I love about shoes is the fact that they're the only thing you wear that you can see yourself in all day.”

If you look down and see a pair of uncomfortable, maybe even torturous heels that make it hard to walk, and hard for you to do what you want or need to do that day, that’s pretty demotivating. And if you want to look down at shoes that make you feel great about yourself? Surely that’s a small pleasure we’re all entitled to.

“Heels have gone out of fashion in the past yet seem to re-emerge over and over again,” says Semmelhack. “Culturally, the high heel remains a potent, albeit problematic, icon of femininity and given that the meanings we ascribe to the high heel have developed over centuries, I think it will take a while for it to completely disappear.”

So while our outdated views slowly die out, here’s to women being able to wear the shoes they want to wear. Not the ones a patriarchal dress code requires of them.
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