I wrote this article originally in Spanish, to be published on Inédito.co.
Much has been said in the history of fashion about high heels. Not so long ago, in the exhibition “Killer Heels,” at the Brooklyn Museum, over 160 high-heeled shoes, both contemporary and antique, were brought together in order to explore what is considered to be one of the most provocative of fashion accessories.
The exhibition, which was more or less an ode to high heels, presented them as a multifaceted element in a woman’s wardrobe, as an element that has served, throughout the years, as a fashion statement, a fetiche object, a power instrument, and a means for artistic expression. Many have argued, in a similar vein, that high heels—just like the corset—and the so-called “ultra-feminine” style empower women to be who they want to be. However, not all opinions on this fascinating accessory are so positive, and fashion scholars such as Gilles Lipovetsky have argued they can only subdue women by hindering their mobility.
However, far beyond seeing high heels as an object, as an accessory for empowerment or subjugation, there is a clear fascination of women for this type of shoe. Most of us remember quite easily those times, far back in our childhood, when we played dress-up with our mother’s high heels. And we might also remember quite easily the moment when we finally became owners of our first pair of high heels. And even now they continue to be an essential element in our wardrobes, which comes particularly handy whenever we are dressing for a special occasion; high heels are the type of shoe we tend to go back to when we’re planning on going out or when we want to “look well dressed.”
When thinking of cities such as New York, we constantly see images of Carrie Bradshaw and her Sex and the City friends, walking around town in incredibly high heels and the most beautiful fashionable attire. Something similar happens when we think of Serena Van Der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf in Gossip Girl. To them, as for many women in real life, high heels are an indispensable element in their day-to-day lives, and are one of their style staples. However, I would like to stop here and ask whether such a style staple can be real in a city like New York or not. How many women are actually able to stroll around the city streets wearing the highest of heels?
Many sociologists have written about the birth and development of large urban centres, like New York City, after the industrialization, and have concluded that the main characteristics of these cities are the fast-speed of life and the anonymity of their inhabitants. Walter Benjamin, for example, was fascinated with modernity in the urban landscape and with the constant acceleration and accumulation of debris in city life. Henri Lefebvre, on his side, associates modernization in Paris with the development of a massive consumption culture, of which the industries of TV and cinema both make part. For De Certeau, however, the urban experience focuses, somehow, more in the oppressive elements that emerge in a rank-structured society, and argues that the use of certain products is nothing other than an imposition from this political structure of the society.
The acceleration of the rhythm of life in the city, which Benjamin explores, is probably one of the most salient characteristics of New York City. Whoever visits the city, even if only for a few hours, will notice the fast movement in the streets and the lives of people; the native, on the other hand, will miss such a speed of movement when abandoning the city even for a short period of time. The constant movement in the city can be experienced not only in the everyday routines of city inhabitants but also in the constant movement of consumption products mentioned by Lefebvre. The window displays of stores change every few days, especially in the case of fast fashion giants, such as Forever21 or H&M, and if you pause in Times Square you will notice how an infinity of images of consumption products flood your mind in a question of seconds.
This constant movement has a clear impact in the lives of city inchabitants, who must go from one place to another using the subway or the bus and who, in most cases, must go from one extreme of the city to another several times a day as part of their daily tasks. The subway, usually crowded, is a place where you constantly bump into people, rarely find a sit, and almost never stop feeling you’re about to fall when it stops at a station. But it is also most definitely the main means of transportation for most New Yorkers. And it is, for the exact same conditions, also one of the main factors that makes it almost impossible for a woman to wear high heels on a daily basis in the city.
Based on the woman who works and moves constantly around the city, the idea of the “Working Girl” emerged in the city scene. She is the woman that walks around town looking perfectly presentable in her suit, but with a small element that sometimes feels like it doesn’t fit: the sneakers. When she reaches the corner of her office building’s block, she stops and changes her sneakers for a very chic pair of high heels, which she had hidden in her bag earlier in the morning. And then she walks in proudly to work. More than once, especially during my first visits to the city over a decade ago, I remember seeing these brave women and wondering if I would ever become one of them. But more recently I would say that this trend has been disappearing and that, somehow, the stereotype of the working girl has vanished with it.
There are two possible reasons for this. First, and probably most obviously, is a question of its reality. It is indeed true that many women wore more comfortable shoes during their commutes, but this doesn’t mean it is the norm. This happens as well, for example, when women bring ballerinas with them when they go out at night so they are more comfortable on the way home after hours of dancing. The fact that some women choose to do this does not mean it is a general norm that every woman follows. For those who do follow the norm, the idea of the working girl might be a reality in their lives. However, those who choose to generally avoid high heels might see the change from sneakers to shoes more like a myth than a reality.
The second reason, particularly valid at this point in time, is related with the new appreciation for casual and “normal” clothing among the younger generations. After seeing so many extravagances in the fashion world, starting probably with the heavy metallic corsets of the eighteenth century and extending through to the use of massive platforms and loud patterns in the eighties, there seems to be a new fashion trend that adores simplicity and bases style almost exclusively on its principles. This new trend seems to reject the use of extravagant high heels, and prefers the use of sneakers or hiking boots instead, highlighting the preferences of a generation that has rejected “traditional” careers in finance and economics and brought a new boom to the arts and design.
However, the fact that there is a new tendency towards the rejection of high heels and the adoption of a “normal” style does not necessarily mean that excessive adornment in dress has disappeared. Design houses like Dolce & Gabanna and Moschino continue to produce garments that are far from being “normal,” and fashion icons like Anna Dello Russo and Chiara Ferragni, who wear this type of designs from head to toe, are also far from “normal.” This duality between trends is one of the most fascinating characteristics of fashion. Fashion is good and bad at once, just as many critics have managed to explain; fashion empowers women by giving them a chance to express their individuality, but it is also submissive in its promotion of almost impossible standards. And this duality is, precisely, what the use of shoes in New York City showcases. In a city widely known as the fashion mecca in America—and probably even the whole world—it is natural for a woman to feel the pressure of having to look good. But when “good” debates between following the ultimate fashion trend that loves sneakers and the old-time fascination for high heels, how is one supposed to choose? Moreover, if looking good is subject to the fast movement of the city, of running up and down the stairs, and of trying not to collapse in the middle of a crowded subway car, is it better to wear the high heels, bring them inside your bag, or just give them up and embrace the sneaker trend?