I don't often get asked to attend fashion events, so last summer, when I opened an invitation to join some of the world's top fashion editors at a party in central London, I panicked. Not being one of the tribe, I did what I felt I had to do: I grasped under the bed for my emergency stash of heels and yanked out a pair of dusty gold round-toed stilettos.
That evening, as I teetered into an unmarked club, already nursing my first blister and squinting down at the crowd from atop my golden pedestals, it hit me: Everyone else was in flats.
The fashion world, it seemed, was finally coming around to flat shoes and boots. And if that party was Exhibit A, the spring/summer 2014 shows this September were clearly Exhibit B: Both on the runway and in the street, the fashion crowd flashed flats of every sort, from Prada loafers to metallic Converse, Balenciaga biker boots to winkle-pickers.
It's about time. I haven't worn heels since that painful night last summer and I don't plan to again. If this holiday season coincides with the death of the stiletto, then joy to the world, I say.
While historians dispute the origins of the high heel, most seem to agree that its endurance as a fashion statement comes down to evolutionary psychology: It exaggerates the femininity of one's movement, the length of the legs and the swing of the bum. Yet socially, at least, women have evolved past the heel. A century after suffragettes chained themselves to fences for equality under the law, they require shoes that allow them to walk the walk – without fear of developing bunions.
In the trend-hunting territories of London, the B.C.-born cobbler Tracey Neuls, whose architectural shoes hang on coloured threads from her boutique's ceiling to be examined from all sides, has become a sort of poster girl for the new, grounded footwear.
As Neuls sees it, "women are gravitating toward shoes that perform all day long." What's more, she believes that a woman can be "sexy, elegant and comfortable" but that "the only way to have an equal balance of the three is to lose the high heel."
Fashion's recent embrace of the androgynous look may also be fuelling the shift toward flats. This season, skirt hemlines are longer and more conducive to a flat-heeled shoe or boot. And the cropped, creased trousers popularized by J.Crew and copied by many work on their own to create an elongated leg and slim ankle, making high heels moot.
"A cropped trouser with a flat is one of my favourite looks. It's pretty much my uniform," says Jessica de Ruiter, an L.A.-based Canadian stylist whose way with men's shirts and "masculine-feminine" silhouettes has influenced fashion editors from Vogue to Vanity Fair.
De Ruiter's own shoe cupboard – so covetable it has been featured by more than one fashion journalist – is a medley of Céline flats, Rochas slippers, Dieppa Restrepo brogues and Chloé loafers that play on our nostalgia for Bass Weejuns. "And of course," she adds, "the Jenni Kayne D'Orsay flat is having a huge moment, seen on every celebrity and knocked off left, right and centre."
It's when you trade in pants for a holiday-season wardrobe of cocktail dresses that flats – unless you're the impossibly slim and elegant Sofia Coppola – become a challenging proposition.
"The tricky part is making the leg look long," says de Ruiter, who offers a few styling tricks that replicate the elongating effect of heels: "A full skirt is easier to pull off with flats than a pencil skirt. And a pointed flat tends to look dressier and mimic the feel of a high heel as it lengthens the leg. I think they actually have a more modern 'dressed-up' [look] than the typical heel."
At London's LN-CC, an appointment-only "curated space" whose shelves are stocked with designs from bleeding-edge modernists such as Haider Ackermann and Rick Owens, the high heel is considered the livery of the bourgeoisie. "Flat shoes and boots have always formed the majority of our women's footwear selection … and continue to out-sell our heels," says buyer Jack Cassidy, as he leads me through an octagonal tunnel of footwear inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey. "I find those who are the most original have always worn flat shoes."
As if on cue, a pair of Lanvin's blue-black iridescent reptile-print derbies arrives, two sizes too small. "They're the only pair we have left," he says, flashing the $750 price tag. They are dreamy, even on my outsized 9½s, and their grosgrain-ribbon laces give them an unmistakably festive trim.
For those seeking a value-for-money option, there are Church's, those classic English lace-ups beloved of blue bloods and bankers. Its classic women's brogues and oxfords start at $440 and get the nod from fashion insiders.
Mary Fellowes, an editor and stylist for 10 Vogue editions worldwide, says she even buys from Church's men's lines – "so comfortable" is how she describes them – along with vintage Gucci loafers and Comme des Garçons' clear PVC and black leather brogues.
De Ruiter prefers brogues from the pricier time-honoured British brand Alden. "They totally work for women as well as men," she says.
When I ask if she believes that one could realistically survive the party season heelfree, she answers with an emphatic "yes."
"Teetering around on heels has always felt very unnatural, uncomfortable and forced,"she says. "I just feel more like myself with my feet on the ground."