High Heels – Power or Patriarchy?

By Emily Nicholls

On Wednesday 17 July, I dragged myself out of bed at some ungodly hour to slip on my sandals and head down to Sheffield for the Dressed Bodies Symposium and – despite the early start! – it was a fantastic and very rewarding day and a great opportunity to learn more about others’ work on a range of diverse topics around dress and identity.
The ‘If the Shoe Fits’ project was new to me, and the short video we watched on the project provided a fascinating insight into the work and some of the findings. What really struck me as I watched it was the similarities and overlaps with my own research.

When I started out on my PhD journey two years ago, I could never have imagined how important the topic of footwear would be in my own project, which centres around (in)appropriate femininity on a night out in Newcastle (it’s every bit as fun as it sounds!). True, one of my three interview themes is around dress and appearance, but I couldn’t have anticipated how central shoes would be to so many of the young women I speak to, or some of the striking parallels between my emerging themes and those explored in both the ‘Shoe Fits’ project and the symposium in general.

My in-depth, semi-structured interviews with young women aged 18-25 in Newcastle are starting to reveal tensions in the ways in which footwear – and heels in particular – matter to women and what they might represent in terms of empowerment or oppression.

For many of the young women, the high heel takes on an almost mythical status as a symbol of what it means to be feminine. Participants describe very vividly the feeling of slipping into a pair of heels, and the ways in which this action completes an outfit and makes the wearer feel feminine and ready for a night out. For many of my participants, being feminine is about accentuating your curves, and there was a sense that stepping into heels could literally transform physical appearance, sculpting and enhancing the female body:

when you have the heels, it’s like it makes your legs look better, it makes your arse look better, taller, like, it gives you a better figure… [cut]… they shape you, just a bit more feminine, like, the curves… (Ally, 21, bisexual)

Something else that really resonated with me from the ‘Shoe Fits’ film was the idea of putting on shoes to point the feet towards – and sometimes literally embody – the future. For some of the young women in my study, the high heeled shoe represents a transition to an imagined and glamourous future, the shift from student to professional identity:

I like in my head to think that when I’m older and I’ve got, like, a proper grown-up job and stuff that I’ll be able to wear, like, you know, all the… lots of make-up and wear heels, and dress up for work, if you like (Kelly, 21, middle-class, straight)

Heels acting as a marker of maturity was a common theme across interviews, with walking successfully in heels seen as a key achievement of femininity:

…if you can’t wear heels then, like, where have you been?! (Ally, 21, bisexual)

Being able to walk ‘properly’ in heels is very important to several of the participants, often identified as a sign of maturity, class and success. Navigating the street in heels is an achievement that can earn praise and respect from other women:

…a lot of them come up and pay compliments… like they go ‘oh my god, how do you walk? Them shoes are beautiful, how do you walk in them?’ (Kirsty, 23, working-class, straight)

Note that for Kirsty, it is not just walking well in shoes that is important, her shoes are also valued and recognised as ‘beautiful’ by others, validating her taste and cultural knowledge. Several of the other young women also see investment in the ‘right’ kind of shoes as important. This can be – for example – through wearing ‘proper’ high heels rather than smaller or kitten heels (again possibly linking to the idea that to walk successfully in ‘proper’ high heels is an achievement of femininity). For others, investing in more expensive or designer shoes is important; however this is described not as about being ‘snobby’ or showing off a particular brand, but rather about treating yourself and spending your hard-earned money on appropriate attire and accessories for a night out. This reflects a ‘work hard, play hard’ working-class Geordie ethic, and is contrasted with the ‘underclass’ or ‘chaavers’, who are imagined as unemployed and unable to afford the appropriate markers of femininity. For example, when I asked Nicole to describe a ‘chaaver’, she explains:

…cheap shoes – oh god, the shoes – we notice that quite a lot… like, Garage shoes are about twenty quid, you can spot them a mile off (Nicole, 24, working-class, straight)

However, the young women’s experiences of and feelings towards heels are diverse, and not everyone is willing to ‘toe’ the line, as it were. Whilst some young women subscribe to the ‘no pain, no gain’ idea, claiming it was worth the discomfort or even pain of wearing heels, other participants challenge this and resist wearing heels themselves:

I know people who will wear high heels on a night out, even if they make their feet bleed. I’m like ‘why?!’… And they’re just like ‘because they look so nice!’… And I’m like ‘but your feet are in shreds… why?!’ (Donna, 21, middle-class, queer)

Related to the idea of pain, several participants talk about the ways in which heels can restrict and limit movement and ability to explore and experience the city. Similarly, the decision to go home is often made when the pain of wearing heels becomes too much. Heels in this sense literally limit where, how and when women are able to engage with the Night Time Economy.

There are also numerous tales of resistance to the idea of wearing high heels on a night out. Hayley talks about deliberately wearing her oldest, most worn-out shoes for a night out as they are only going to end up ‘wrecked’ anyway, whilst Fiona describes her Doc Martens as ‘multi-purpose’ as she can wear them on a night out for ‘booting skanks’ (kicking women who make a move on her partner). These tales and others articulate alternative discourses around footwear choice on a night out, around ideas of comfort, function and practicality.

This raises for me some of the questions of the familiar debates around agency and empowerment, again, ideas that were touched on at the symposium. Are women being ‘duped’ into actions such as wearing high heels in order to fit a narrow stereotype of conventionally ‘sexy’ femininity for the male gaze? Or does this reading do an injustice to the women themselves and the ways in which they talk about the pleasure of heels and of getting dressed up for a night out more generally? The animated way in which many of the young women talk to me about getting ready – and its often important function as a way of bonding and spending time with female friends – makes me hesitant to simply write them off as undisputed victims of the patriarchy. Whether unwitting Cinderella searching for her prince, or empowered sister doing it for herself, there’s more to heels and their wearers than meets the eye.

Emily Nicholls is a second year PhD student at Newcastle University. To contact her or find out more about her research, email e.nicholls@newcastle.ac.uk or visit http://research.ncl.ac.uk/agnorp/ 

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