Are Heels Dead?


Just as we’d managed to convince ourselves that 7in heels were a practical footwear option, rather than the modern equivalent of Chinese foot-binding, designers have made a radical U-turn. Flats are back. You could call it fashion’s banking crisis: heels rose to unsustainable heights and, as with the recession, no one quite saw the fall coming.

Of course, a drop in heel height isn’t going to affect the security of your home or job, but the power of stilettos in a work environment shouldn’t be underestimated. Last week the Trades Union Congress announced that high heels are demeaning to women and should not be worn in the office. Make of this what you will, but its suggestion that women should wear “sensible shoes” has inadvertently put the TUC in the same style camp as Vogue — and it is unclear which party is more surprised.

News that pancake soles are the new vanguard of style will be a shock for many women (not to mention their shortened Achilles tendons). Sales of flat shoes may be up by 20 per cent at Selfridges, but the thrill of prancing about on a pair toughened knitting needles is impossible to re-create with both feet safely on the ground .

Let’s be clear, even though Christopher Kane, Hannah MacGibbon at Chloé, Calvin Klein and Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz endorsed flat shoes on the catwalk, your old scuffed ballet slippers will not be at the forefront of fashion next season. That would be too straightforward.

Kane, who is fast becoming one of the most influential designers around, is adamant about the type of flats he deems acceptable. “Is it ballet pumps?” he asks, “In my opinion, no; flats need to be more boyish.” They must to have attitude too. “I wanted to have a harder, more masculine edge to the collection and flat shoes provide that in one hit.” In short, it’s curtains for all those attitude heels that have seen us through the past five years.

Ten years ago, when shoes were a pleasant after-thought rather than a showcase for fashion experimentation, a pair of pointy courts answered almost every footwear requirement. Before that, only Manolo Blahnik challenged established shoe perimeters. One of his first collections in 1971 included The Brick. A stonking piece of craftsmanship, the shoe included a mammoth patent block sole that must have made the wearer about a foor taller.

Manolos satisfied the creatives, but it took more than 20 years for avant-garde and über-glamorous shoes to come to the masses — or at least to the celebrities. Tamara Mellon, the accessories editor of British Vogue in the mid-1990s, spotted a gap in the market for aspirational heels and approached a certain Mr Jimmy Choo. Footwear was never the same again. The red carpet gave Choo acres of publicity, and Sex and the City’s Carrie, with her almost pathological devotion to heels (“I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes”), added fuel to the fire.

Then Christian Louboutin’s red soles arrived and we were seduced all over again. Being French and determined, Louboutin raised the heel stakes, adding a concealed platform sole for extra lift and then later doubling it because, presumably, our ankles had toughened to the challenge. Fast-forward again and we now have a high street that sets its own perilous heel trends, as well as a batch of young designers who have created heel-less heels, go-faster spikes and scooped-out wedges (by Antonio Berardi ) that defy gravitational pull.

Ingrid Collins, a clinical psychologist, believes that the seductiveness of beautiful heels is related to the foot being a peripheral part of the body. “Feet are covered up for the majority of the year and are farthest away from our awareness,” she says. “The better-looking the shoe, the more it compensates for the feeling that our feet are objects rather than aesthetically pleasing parts of our bodies.” So there you have it. Feet are only worthwhile when they are encased in artfully crafted heels. What they will become when they are dragged around in a pair of stocky brogues is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, Sebastian Manes, the director of accessories at Selfridges, thinks that shoe trends are going one way only. “Last season the high heel moved away from being sexy and became very avant-garde — this season designers prove that the flat shoe is not boring or conservative. It is as fashion-forward as heels.”

Flats also satisfy our requirements to appear less ostentatious these days. Pam Brady, the shoe buyer for Browns, which opened its first standalone footwear boutique in January, is convinced that stepping off our heels is a result of the recession. “People don’t want to be showy in this economic climate; there’s a trend towards understated style. Ironically, flats may well cost as much as showier heels, but the perception of them is very different.” Dries Van Noten, for instance, is selling tasselled loafers for £415 (brownsfashion.com).Unfortunately, going flat doesn’t necessarily mean saving money.

The level of foot pain is also poles apart. Claire Foster, the associate footwear editor at the fashion trend forecasting publication WGSN, certainly isn’t fighting the trend. “Heels make you feel more confident, but they also restrict your movements. Yes, flats are less elegant, but they enable the wearer to do more, which is empowerment in a different sense.” Put like that, it seems strange that women have put up for so long with such impossible foot protectors.

A change in footwear trends doesn’t just affect what we put on our feet; there’s an inevitable knock-on to what we wear on our bodies, too. After all, a pair of mannish penny loafers (another key style for winter) worn with an unforgiving pencil skirt will be difficult to pull off for even the lithest of figures. Still, French Vogue’s editor Carine Roitfeld wore flats at the Cannes Film Festival — this from a woman who once admitted to wearing heels even with her tracksuit bottoms .

Roitfeld might have encouraged our compulsion to totter on wobbly works of art, but even she couldn’t halt the march of the androgynous look, from boyfriend jeans and blazers to lace-up brogues. Although they originated in our husbands’ wardrobes, solid flat shoes (and if you want the full effect, they must be black) can make an animal print tunic less Côte d’Azur and a tailored tuxedo easy going in a non-James Bond kind of way.

The trick is to use these shoes as an exclamation mark to winter’s minimal themes. If you need a celebrity reference, Alexa Chung mastered the flat shoe before Calvin Klein even put them on the catwalk. Granted, though, her legs are slimmer than strands of linguine — so if you have a bit more weight on yours, think about skipping the loafer-with-bare-legs combination and keep them for when tights return. or wear brogues with trousers – just keep the trousers short; you should not underestimate power of a bare ankle to distinguish this look from Savile Row.

The emergence of flats ties into the growing importance of “pre-collections”. Designed to offer a commercial expression of a designer’s concept, these ranges now make up somewhere in the region of 80 per cent of some department store buys. Interestingly, almost all the pre-collections for next season were photographed on house models wearing flat shoes. Perhaps designers are listening more closely to what women want to spend their money on, and what they actually want to wear in their everyday lives rather than ogle in glossy magazines. “Designers with an obsession for towering torture chambers, often poorly designed for the wellbeing of the foot, must get a reality check. I, for one, am over the mania for the high, high heel. Too many career women look like a herd of fashion beasts aping one another in impractical shoes,” said Andre Leon Talley, editor-at-large of American Vogue said recently said typical vigour.

Sales of shoes are the reason that many of the designer names along Sloane Street remain afloat, so their changing shape must be regarded as important fashion news. And not just because our legs are going to look a little stumpier come autumn.

 From The Times –  August 2009


1 Response to “Are Heels Dead?”

  1. 1 theprettyproject
    September 4, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Oh, no! I REALLY need heels!


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