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 co