I have not been poking into stores much lately . Like most people, I have pulled back, conscious of the high prices for daily necessities such as food and electricity and health care. This has not been the time for an impulse buy or a splurge. The past couple of years have been financially difficult for many of us, and that has meant staying focused, not yielding to temptations. With the holidays upon us, I decided it was appropriate to lighten up, at least enough to walk through a few gaudily decorated malls or chic shops and see what was out there, specifically in the world of female fashion. Perhaps I would find a new top for the upcoming festivities.
Everywhere I turned I saw the same arresting items: those absolutely humongous high-heeled shoes for women. So commanding was their presence that they obliterated my ability to concentrate on anything else. I have continued to browse through magazines like Vogue because I write for them—and yes, let me admit it, I like to keep current, not because I am still in the game, as it were, but for the fun. I knew the shoes were of the moment, but I was surprised by the ubiquity of them. In many window displays—from department stores to expensive boutiques—there they were. The mannequins might be draped in diaphanous dresses or military jackets (the clothes themselves were an eclectic mix, with no single coherent trend I could make out). But each one sported a variation on the insanely elevated theme. Some were platform pumps with round toes and sparkly embellishments; others were gladiator sandals, all straps and testosterone. Whatever the style, the pitch was off the charts. This newfangled footwear is to Sex and the City’s Manolo Blahniks what extreme skiing is to the bunny slope: steeper and scarier. We’re talking black diamond walking. In recent fashion shows in Europe a few runway models have taken nasty falls, going down like stumbling flamingos.
Pop culture icons like Lady Gaga and Sarah Jessica Parker are prancing about on high, but so, too, are real women. When I had my hair cut last month, some pretty twentysomethings skittered precariously across the slick salon floor. I was amazed at their dexterity and daring. Shoes are always a signal about status. Those who must be on their feet much of the day don’t tend to wear stilettos. Hard workers are by definition flatlanders. You don’t wear serious heels if you are laboring on an assembly line or standing in front of a class for hours—or, for that matter, if you are the secretary of state crisscrossing the globe, hopping on and off airplanes in your sensible pantsuits as you try to make peace. Superhigh shoes suggest leisure; it’s no accident that throughout history they have been worn by the rich and pampered—and by those who wanted to appear that way.
For young women today there is no doubt some escapism is at work. Their career prospects are tough. They can get a little swaggering mojo back by strutting their stuff in designer knockoffs. I find myself thinking of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Fear of Falling. She wasn’t talking about shoes but about the fear Americans have of falling down the economic ladder, of being financially diminished, of feeling, in effect, smaller. I suppose these crazy high shoes offer at least a psychological leg up at a time when the middle class is disappearing and people are losing ground.
When I was in the emergency room recently with a family member, a beautiful young doctor in a white coat went by on shiny four-inch black patent pumps, her stethoscope the ultimate power necklace bouncing gently against her chest. She was stunning, radiating no-nonsense competence and assertive femininity in one package. Though she likely was in for a long day, she would no doubt be off her feet for part of it doing the endless record keeping. When she was walking, there was one slight problem. The gait mandated by such heels is an odd and not altogether smooth one: It’s somewhere between a teeter and a forceful plunk. You’ve got to be sure that skinny heel makes centered contact with the floor or down you go. As I watched this woman navigate, she looked invincible and vulnerable. I guess that’s the point; you want to appear both strong and gettable.
There will always be plenty of successful, hard-driving women who like to accent their power wear and briefcases with major pumps. Why they feel compelled to do so is another question. Call it erotic dissonance. High shoes tilt the body forward, putting it in a more suggestive posture. That’s part of the game, one that women have been engaging in for centuries: I may be tough but I am still female. TV is full of the type—the accomplished lawyer with the marathon-taut gams in the killer heels. We can presume that there is a lacy camisole beneath her blazer. The message is plain: No pigeonholing for us.
Years ago I promised myself I would not wax schoolmarmish about the fashion proclivities of younger people when I wasn’t in that age group, and I have no intention of starting now. No invoking of podiatrists, no tut-tutting about maimed toes or aching arches. I will leave those noises to some other moralist. I never believed anyone had to pledge allegiance to the liberationist cause by wearing Birkenstocks. In fact, I myself favor heels, albeit the wimpy midlife version known as kitten heels. They are spiky but relatively short and easy to walk in and give a bit of oomph without making the wearer feel imperiled. These are the shoes Michelle Obama is often seen in—perhaps for the same reason, the mobility factor, but also so she won’t tower over her spouse.
I have my greatest qualms about another of today’s predominant styles: gladiator sandals, which have a definite hostility about them. You can picture someone wearing them with a leather bikini and a scowl. Unlike what that young doctor had on, these are massive, forceful. They are dominatrix wear. They say, “Yes, I am in charge here.” I associate them with what I call the “Viagra virago,” the insatiable femme fatale who haunts the insecure male imagination so visible in the erectile dysfunction ads that make me cringe. Here are these handsome men making goo-goo eyes at their wives and professing their ability to be at the ready to satisfy their mates. The silliest is the spot for Cialis, in which a man and a woman are sitting in separate bathtubs holding hands across the rims. What’s that about—a self-satisfied, postcoital cooldown? When I interviewed some doctors a few years ago about who was requesting prescriptions for these drugs, they said it wasn’t the older guys as much as the younger ones who felt the pressure to “keep performing.”
It might seem a far walk between women’s shoes and Viagra, but I don’t think so. One could ascribe to the women who wear any of these really high versions a certain insecurity, a need to be taller, fiercer, taken more seriously—an ongoing problem in much of the working world. As one young woman told me while she listed around my kitchen, “I feel strong in these. I can’t be overlooked. People pay attention to me.” I asked her if men liked them. She said her boyfriend liked them, though he didn’t care one way or the other. “But I feel sexy in them,” she said. “I think women wear these for other women. It’s kind of competitive. ‘I can go higher than you.’ ” There was no malice in what she said, nothing of the cutthroat vixen. She is smart and lovely and in my eyes doesn’t need the bolstering height. What’s more, I dislike hearing women talk about intragender competition. Yes, it’s a reality, but that whole corny notion of sisterhood is one I carry from my early days and continue to value. I said this to her as best I could without sounding nostalgic or pompous. She smiled at me—not patronizingly, I am happy to say—and urged me to go try on a pair.
I did. I went and slipped on the biggest, blackest, highest strappy platforms I could find. I was in a designer boutique at my local mall. The two young saleswomen were wearing them. They had on tight white shirts with a bit of cleavage showing, short black skirts, and thick black eyeliner. It was clearly the required uniform. They were very sweet, their girlish tones out of whack with their getups, a contradiction I see a lot these days. They were perfectly cheerful when I confessed to my mission and helped me make a selection.
“Now just get up slowly,” one of them said, giving me a hand. I was in a skirt for the occasion, and when I finally was upright and in front of the mirror, I did notice how the shoes made my calves look longer and leaner. And I was about five inches taller. I felt younger, bolder, au courant. The problem was, I couldn’t move without clutching the display cases. Here was a trend, with its underlying psychological implications, I could and would have no part of. Most days I go barefoot from morning till night, padding in and out of the house to the backyard. That’s because I have the great luxury of working at home and rarely need to venture forth. How lucky I am to feel the damp grass between my toes. For my money—and my years—that’s a lot more sensual than being propped up on heels, even the kitten ones.
Illustration by Gracia Lam