"I don't know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot," Marilyn Monroe said.
She was a woman who had some experience with the vital sensation of entering a room in heels that tilt the body for optimum animal appeal, tucking and protruding where it matters: the primal power of display.
When it comes to style, though, I generally lean away from Marilyn and toward Gilda Radner, who said: "I base most of my fashion sense on what doesn't itch." And so it is that I have embraced the woman's brogue, the country club wingtip shoe with the little holes - broguing - along the stitching.
Yet there are those who disdain my beloved pointy grey Campers. "Who exactly told women it was okay to wear their dad's shoes?" The Guardian grumbled recently. The blog Shoeperwoman.com broke out the all-caps moan: "I can't WAIT for this trend to die."
Still, brogues are appearing below the ankles of cool celebrities such as Sienna Miller and Maggie Gyllenhaal and are being trumpeted in fashion magazines as part of the "boy meets girl" trend (see roomy jeans and loafers). Canadian shoe chain Brown's carries several styles from clunky to the more delicate jazz: "It's the new ballerina flat. Two years ago, they weren't on our radar, but we got them in last summer. Taylor Swift wore them with skinny jeans. They're hot," says Kate Watts, senior buyer at Brown's.
"Hot" is, of course, traditionally the domain of the stiletto. Over the past 15 years, heels have gone from night-out to normal; Sex and the City made heels the fetish object of working women. Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin create shoes so beautifully crafted they look like Christmas tree ornaments - and are about as comfortable to wear. The materials are sumptuous, the beading intricate - signifiers of indulgence to fulfill a me-first luxury fantasy.
Then again, high heels are also the emblem of porn and stripping, the only accessory for birthday suits. Elizabeth Semmelhack of Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum writes in her book Heights of Fashion that in the early 21st century "dominatrix-referencing boots replaced classic stilettos as housewives switched from Pilates to pole dancing." But the "power" in sexing up is dubious: Higher heels haven't meant higher wages or a speedier ascent in politics and business for women.
And what's the result of shoes shaped like pencils on feet shaped like triangles? I once wore a pair of high-heeled boots to a play that were so painful I could feel in my throat that my feet were being strangled. I stuffed them under the chair by the second act, hoping my tear-streaked face would be interpreted as an emotional connection to the dialogue.
Tapered foot beds and tiny toe boxes have caused a surge of bunions and hammertoes, misleadingly comical terms that can mean agonizing pain and even toe removal. This year, research at Iowa State University showed that higher heels put women at greater risk for knee osteoarthritis and joint degeneration.
This is a female thing: In her book Bad Shoes and the Women Who Love Them, Leora Tanenbaum cites a 2009 study that found 87 per cent of American women suffer because of painful footwear versus 68 per cent of men. Tanenbaum isn't anti-heels, just pro-moderation. She suggests a warning on shoeboxes, perhaps something like: Use sparingly.
In an e-mail, Tanenbaum points out that brogues repel some women because they fall into the dreaded category of "sensible." It's true that brogues began in Ireland and Scotland in the 19th century as the shoes of labourers, punched with holes for ventilation that would allow muddy bog and river water to escape.
"Why have we careened from one extreme to another? Because women's footwear is concerned with fantasy, not reality. Both trends look like costumes," Tanenbaum says. "Last season we were women in drag; now we are men in drag. From Brian Atwood's 'Maniac' five-inch platform pumps to J. Crew's Camden brogues, women's shoes are not grounded in the reality of women's lives."
But fashion has always been a safe place to experiment with gender and the biggest trends this season are playfully androgynous: Band of Outsiders' shrunken preppy trousers and jackets, saddle oxfords and loose pants. Contempt for this look, and brogues, has a slight whiff of homophobia. It's the same stink on the label "boyfriend jeans," a nervous corporate moniker that insists baggy, mannish pants are acceptable for straight girls with boyfriends. Straight, screams the subtext. Straight!
Walking into a room in brogues sparks a different kind of sexual power than heels: You get to step more heavily, take up more space. You strut instead of teeter. (Pair them with a girly skirt and a tight top and you also get to observe the potent effect of mixed messages.)
But if traditional brogues are too unnerving, L.L. Bean's new heritage collection features a patent leather high-heeled brogue. This seems like some screwy breeding to me - a rabbit-cat that merges the agony of female footwear with the power statement of a man's shoe. Pass. I'll keep my brogues on the ground for the moment. It's sensible down here. And sexy, too.
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