by A.E. Beverley
"Think again of the stiletto as a knife: if the heel is the blade, the foot is the hilt, and the leg becomes the arm wielding the knife. The victim must be the earth."
Consider the intended effect of a heel like the Manolo Blahnik as similar to a building like the Shard.
Like the Shard, the blade of a heel narrows at the tip, but unlike it, the narrowed tip pushes against the earth, rather than the sky. That push buys the wearer an extra 4-inches of height, which lends the wearer stature; an imposing physical presence that genetics denied them. The well-heeled are elevated above those who have not.
Although 6-inch is the heel height most often referenced in pop culture, they’re typically the province of strippers, rather than popstars or bankers, who prefer a four. The average prostitute has no skin in this game, as usually they’re standing for hours in some rotten industrial estate, wearing Adidas or Slazenger.
When a woman wears high heels, she experiences many physiological changes. The front leg muscles are activated, so legs appear slimmer and more toned. Walking works the muscles harder, so the calf muscles shorten in response. If women wear high heels while standing or walking for years, the calf tendon permanently shortens, so that they’ll never walk comfortably without high heels again.
Weight that’s normally distributed throughout the foot is concentrated on the toes or ball of the feet. The result strains the knees, lower back, and upper abdomen. At first, this creates pain and discomfort, but later, injury, if the experience is repetitious and prolonged.
All this pain isn’t to make some point about “unrealistic beauty standards”. Beauty is usually preposterous, excessive, and disproportionate. Like high heels, beauty makes your knees buckle. The point is that, like the Shard’s penthouse, high heels are not for you.
Fashion legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci designed the high heel, which isn’t true. High heels first arrived in Europe from Venice, that glimmering, infinite city at the edge of the world.
Venetians adopted the ‘chopine’ (although they were always ‘zoccoli’ in Italian, which today means ‘clogs’) from the Persian court about the same time the Venetian Empire entered its period of decline, the mid-fifteenth century.
Chopines were a kind of backless mule on a wooden platform. Although their height was legally restricted to 3.5-inches, the law was rarely obeyed. Only courtesans and women affiliated with the ruling oligarchy of two hundred families wore Chopines. Women of the highest status, or courtesans who demanded the most extravagant sums, wore Chopines so high that they’d have to support themselves with sticks, or attendant servants’ arms.
The point was that the wearers could afford not to walk; they could pay someone to carry them.
Chopines were popular among the élite of France, Spain and Venice until the seventeenth century. The 1630 plague that reduced Venice’s population size by a third took a third of its Chopine-wearers to the grave, too. The Chopines’ excesses must have lost their appeal in the ruined, grief-wet, post-plague Venice, now a disembodied city with only an Empire’s memory. The style soon fell out of fashion everywhere.
The heel as we know it emerged during the reign of France’s Louis XV and has been in fashion pretty consistently ever since. The only time they did fall out of favour, briefly, was in the early 19th century, post-French and American revolutions. The modernising impulse that brought royalty low, wanted women on their feet, too. Napoleon’s Josephine had over 300 square-toe slippers, precursors of the modern ballet flat; that style which so subtly nods at the bourgeoise’s discreet perversions.
‘Stiletto’ is an Italian word for a stabbing dagger with a long thin blade – sometimes needle thin – which was the favoured weapon of political assassins during the tumultuous Italian Renaissance.
The long blades easily pushed through wool, leather and flesh, to pierce the organs and arteries within. For 500 years, lords and brawlers used stiletti to end their enemies.
The stiletto heel was likely invented by Italian fashion designer Salvatore Ferragamo in the 1940s. Artist-scientist Ferragamo was responsible for at least 300 innovative shoe designs, including the modern platform. Early in his career, Ferragamo was troubled by the idea that his shoes were beautiful but caused pain, so he enrolled to study anatomy at the University of Southern California to try and solve the problem. Consequently, he invented modern arch support, which made shoe wearers more comfortable than they ever had been before.
Ferragamo must have been satisfied with supporting arches, because there’s no evidence he continued a quest for greater comfort. He didn’t invent the trainer. After arch support, Ferragamo only aimed for greater beauty, new heights.
The Second World War accelerated technological innovation in every way. A pressing need to make larger, lighter aircraft carriers that held more weight spurned innovative fusion techniques, like injection moulding with aluminium. After the war, shoe designers realised they could use this new kind of injection moulding to make lighter, stronger arches with higher heels, and the stiletto heel was born.
Although history disputes whether it was Ferragamo, Vivier or Perugia who invented stilettos, it was likely Ferragamo. Ferragamo is the undisputed inventor of arch support, the cork sole, the metal sole, and quality mass shoe production. After his death, there have been few significant innovations in shoe design.
Plus, stiletto is an Italian word, not French.
The Second World War made engineering the stiletto heel possible and saw a resurgence of stiletto dagger use in battle.
Allied and axis commando forces who needed to kill their enemies silently carried stiletto daggers in the field. Combat stiletto blade designs prioritised the knife’s thrusting ability, over how well it slashed and cut. Whether this resurgence influenced the name or design of the stiletto heel is lost to time.
As well as the stiletto, the 1940s gave the world many female demons, whose horror is inseparable from their sex. Female monsters of the ‘40s include the femme fatale of Noir, the USSR’s Night Witches, and the Aufseherin of Auschwitz and Belsen.
In the knife-heel, the presence of these women would be more imposing, but they’d be physically incapable of committing most of their evils. A stiletto increases the visual erotic spectacle of fatal femininity, while protecting the desiring male from any real danger.
When women wear stilettos, with their name that inevitably connotes violence, their beauty’s enhanced for greater visual effect. As the heel’s blade thrusts upward, hip bones tilt forward and shoulders slide back, raising the breasts. The female body resembles itself during a state of arousal, but with a preternatural alertness – calves are taught like you’re running, the abdomen’s long and tight, like you’re bracing for a punch. In stilettos, a woman appears active, while she’s absolutely immobilised.
In Free Women, Free Men, Camille Paglia correctly assesses a double bind of the stiletto heel’s erotic appeal: a woman is more imposing, while she’s physically weakened.
Some fashion historians believe heels first became erotic objects during the late 19th century, as early pornographic photographs usually capture women absolutely naked, except for their heeled shoes. But perhaps it’s more likely heeled shoes were worn because they already possessed an erotic quality. A naked woman in a heel takes on an androgynous aspect, a sexual aesthetic valorised from the Renaissance onward. A nude woman in a heel playfully possesses two little, ineffective phallic objects, that she can’t use to penetrate; only adorn.
But heels achieve more than an erotic effect. Their construction communicates a kind of power more materially real and practically impactful than simple sexual potency.
Paglia’s estimation that “the luxury high heel as status marker is directed not toward men but toward other women” reads as essentially correct, but she doesn’t expand much on how heels effectively signify status to women. If you’ve ever walked three miles to catch a bus to an event in heels, you may already understand. Heels make those who normally navigate their city’s pavements with confidence, hobble.
In short, heels are not practical for those who use public transport. The longer you spend on your feet in them, the worse the crush. Heels are for women who arrive in a car that someone else is driving and leave in one. Like the Venetian courtesans, the implication of a women in heels is that she can pay someone else to bear their weight, be it a chauffeur or taxi driver.
High heels elevate the wearer above those on the ground. Any height, like the height of the Shard, communicates something of status. As the late John Berger observed about historic paintings, peasants – particularly peasant women – are usually painted within close to the ground landscape scenes, where they’re labouring. While aristocrats – the 1% of their day – are painted elevated above their lands, with the fields they own, and their hunched peasant women, before them. In their proximity to the earth, peasant women are analogised as more elemental than their aristocratic counterparts. If the land represents all the sin of this material realm, the sky is purity and ascension; something like heaven. Rising above it can be some kind of absolution. Think again of the stiletto as a knife: if the heel is the blade, the foot is the hilt, and the leg becomes the arm wielding the knife. The victim must be the earth.
The contemporary bad bitch is nothing without her stiletto heel.
A close relation of the girl boss, the bad bitch is distinct from her hustling counterpart in that it’s somewhat irrelevant whether she worked for her money, or a man gave it to her. In that respect, the bad bitch mode is more aristocratic.
If you’re having trouble picturing the bad bitch, consider Beyoncé at Coachella, Rihanna walking away from endless restaurants with glasses of wine, anyone who has collaborated with Pretty Little Thing, or Cardi B in her “learn how to budget hoe” Vine.
The bad bitch typically wears a stiletto, long-hair, and the contour of a drag queen. Her exaggerated hyper-femininity, “unnuanced female sexuality, and even a vaguely pornographic sensibility” puts her in the category of ‘Bad straight camp’, as Bruce LaBruce defined it. “Heteronormative in practice and corporate in tone”, the bad bitch is evidently a product of the American Empire in that the aesthetic valorises perfectibility above spontaneity.
The bad bitch gets a bag and fixes her teeth. Whether her looks are innate is irrelevant; what matters is that the bad bitch expended the necessary capital to acquire them. Like the look of models Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, who both own an ‘Instagram Face’, the bad bitch’s presentation is determined by the algorithm and produced for it. The bad bitch will spend, nip and tuck whatever it takes to achieve the look currently most valorised by the masses, and she’s proud of her ability to do so.
The consummate bad bitch verse of the twenty teens must be from Beyonce and Nicki Minaj’s Flawless (Remix):
Looking Trinidadian, Japanese and Indian Got Malaysian, got that yaki, that wavy Brazilian Them bitches thirsty, I'm Hungarian Nicki, BB, be eating diamond fangs, barbarian, RAAAAH!
The global market and its medley of influences produces the post-racial look of the contemporary bad bitch. The hair she wears is shaven off the heads of women from the global south, who’ve sold their beauty to her, so they can afford to live. The bad bitch isn’t neurotic about this imbalance in power relations; in fact, she celebrates it – that she can afford to enhance her beauty by parasitically exploiting the poor, only increases her glory.
When you consider the bad bitch, it seems the stiletto’s blade is at the throat of women, not men. The threat the blade delivers is: stay down if you can’t get up.
A.E. Beverley is an essayist and poet from North Manchester. She writes a monthly column for the Radical Art Review.