As a life-long Manolo fan, I have always nursed a desire for a pair of his classic Mary Jane stilettos. Recently I went to the shop and tried them on. They looked wonderful – one of the most elegant and beautifully balanced shoes I’ve ever experienced – but as I gazed at them in the mirror I knew that I could never buy them. I just could not walk in pin-thin heels of this height. Regretfully I handed them back.
I suppose shoe love has blinded me to the possibility that they could be used as the dark instruments of compulsion or oppression. This month a petition to make it illegal for a company to require women to wear high heels at work has attracted over 140,000 signatures in the UK. This means that the government must provide a response and that the topic can be considered for a debate in Parliament. We should see the response and know whether it will be debated in early July.
Even as a dedicated fashion obsessive and shoe lover, to have the topic of high heels at work actually debated in Parliament seems extraordinary to me. In fact my only brush with shoe regulation was in my school days when a strict height limit of one inch was applied to heels and enforced vigorously, much to our chagrin.
What interests me about this debate, though is choice of the high heeled shoe as the target. I have recently been thinking about high heels at work in the context of two very senior women with whom I’ve worked. In each case, their signature fashion item was very lovely, very expensive and very high heels. They did not just wear their shoes, they displayed them almost as a badge of rank. The reaction amongst females varied from admiration to disbelief that they could walk comfortably all day but in both cases each woman was completely comfortable and mobile in her heels (there is little that is uglier than a woman limping down the street in a pair of shoes she cannot walk in). The reaction amongst males tended to focus on the heavy stride the heels produced. This signal of the wearer’s approach and impending intent to do business then cued frantic paper shuffling and activity.
The wearing of high heels at work is also interesting as a trend right now. We had the excesses of the platform sole combined with super-high stiletto a decade ago. That was succeeded by a return to flats in ballerinas, embellished slippers, mules and sneakers. Now at last we are returning to an elegantly balanced shoe, ranging from cute kitten heels to sleek stilettos. These are the kinds of shoes that women like Miuccia Prada never stopped wearing and looking marvellous in. They recall the glamour and sinuous movement of screen stars like Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. They are a wearable but elegant shoe and they instil a sense of occasion. When I wear shoes like this, I feel different – more feminine but also in-charge and ready to perform.
Of course, there is a downside, most obviously in the aching feet or twisted ankles that stiletto heels can inflict. So as with all things, moderation is the key. Undaunted by my experience with the Manolo Mary Janes, I have recently added to my collection a lovely pair of his sling-backs with a comfortable rounded-toe, and a slightly sturdier mid-height heel. I love them even more because I can wear them and keep a smile on my face.
This unusual debate in the UK is an interesting reminder that clothes assume the meaning we give them – whether it is a veiled head or a stiletto’ed foot, clothing can send powerful messages about its wearer that will be perceived in different ways by beholders. One woman’s torturous heels are another woman’s object of aspiration. So find the heel that works for you and enjoy them.
Fashion is communication but it is also fun.