When Regina King stumbled out of her heels on the way to the Academy Awards stage to accept her Oscar for best supporting actress, the cultural conversation focused on the intuitive gallantry of actor Chris Evans, who helped her up the stairs. But according to Summer Brennan, we should have been talking about the ways in which those white pumps failed her. “Our shoes pin us to the world,” the journalist writes in her new book High Heel. “Shoes tell stories about public life, status, power – or the lack of it.”
Brennan previously worked on issues relating to decolonization, disarmament, human rights and climate change at the United Nations. In the ongoing book series Object Lessons, about the hidden lives of ordinary things, she steps into the shoe as a starting point to consider the politics of femininity and of being a woman in public – from the trouble with fairy tales to Sylvia Plath’s black patent pumps. I spoke with her recently about feminism, biology, violence – and what the glass ceiling has to do with the glass slipper.
Being fashionable is seen, for women, as a kind of social intelligence. That’s tacit among women but is it in the general culture yet? There’s the semiotics of clothing and then the dismissive frivolity associated with an interest in clothing.
It’s both things at once. It is a line to walk. And it changes every few years, what’s considered acceptable, depending on who you are, what your identity is, what you’re allowed to get away with.
Like the gendered politicking around women, specifically the kitten heel and how fraught Hillary Clinton’s choice of footwear in the presidential debates must have been.
The [presidential] campaign was happening as I was working on the book and it was impossible for me to not notice how careful she had to be. But even two years later I think that may already be changing, just by virtue of there being more women visible in politics in the United States, and pushing back in a way they weren’t able to a couple decades ago. Like with AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], a 29-year-old, young stylish woman in Congress who’s getting a ton of attention. When people give her a hard time for her clothes it becomes a major story.
What do you think when you see models or women stumble out of heels and take them off, like Kristen Stewart did when she walked barefoot on the red carpet at Cannes last year?
It’s fascinating and also complicated, that’s why it ends up being a point of debate with people. Are you shaming the woman? So much is the argument about the choice to wear them. But sometimes it’s actually not a choice, especially if it’s a red-carpet setting. Like Cannes, the edict that they were required [on all women walking the red carpet].
In spite of the obviously violent language we’ve normalized around heels – like, “my shoes are killing me.”
And there’s Emma Thompson with her heels in her hand and a drink in the other [onstage at the 2014 Golden Globes]!
Or rebels like Kristen who makes a show of removing her heels as public acknowledgment about pain, expectations, objectification, sexism. It’s breaking the fourth wall, really.
It does breach this little thing that Marilyn Monroe says not to do in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is a lady never admits that her feet hurt. And so, it’s interesting that here are these women who could be wearing the best-made shoes in the world and they’re still taking them off.
Maybe they’ve reached enough status and power that they can without losing anything?
When I’m a low-level employee at a work benefit I’m not going to take off my heels and go barefoot. In any sense, being in public is a type of performance, but as I point out in the book, heels are shoes for the display and ambition in the public eye. There is this female performative thing. Especially in the second half of the 20th century, the heel became feminized in a way it actually hadn’t been before. Now they’re more of an icon associated with women.
And it’s now a signifier to separate and categorize other things in the culture, like chick-lit book covers or wines marketed to women.
It’s also possible that in the past 50 years there’s been a further codification and entrenchment of high heels as a female thing. It gives certain garments, like our shoes, a little more weight to need to express femininity, especially when so many other women’s clothes are no longer traditionally feminine – you wear jeans and a button-up shirt, nobody is thinking you’re in drag.
The same ad for Everlane’s new shoe keeps popping up in my Instagram feed. It’s an infographic of a woman in this two-inch heel and the vocabulary, the company’s big selling point, is that they are “walkable.”
If you think about that, the suggestion is the alternative would somehow be extraordinary! Like a shoe for women being walkable is something you actually need to mention. It’s not in men’s shoe advertising; of course they’re walkable. Something else I thought about as a gendered issue is that we confuse something being tolerable with being comfortable. I think I do. I spent a lot of time thinking a pair of heels was comfortable just because I could tolerate them. There’s often an inequality in both function and durability in women’s clothing. It’s easy to focus on the negatives of high heels, that’s why it’s such an interesting garment, it’s an object of desire in the fashion world and an important part of the puzzle of women and their professional lives.
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