You’d think the sight of models toppling right and left from vertiginous heels during the recent Spring/Summer 2009 collections would have signalled that the peak of the inflated high-heel market finally has been reached. One Prada model revealed the terror to the Guardian: “I had a panic attack, my hands were shaking,” she said. “Some of the girls were crying backstage they were so scared.”
But no, not the tears of gazelles nor risk of concussion or orthopaedic maladies has halted the mania for skyscraper heels. It’s the 21st century’s version of foot binding—only with women now paying major coin to hobble themselves. Manolo Blahnik’s six-inch heel added this year accounts for one-third of sales. Christian Louboutin just announced an eight-inch heel for next fall. And Gwyneth Paltrow’s parade of seven-inch heels on red carpets promoting Iron Man resulted in a run on extreme heels known in fashion circles as the “Gwyneth factor.”
As heels soared, they’ve become increasingly sculptural, little Picassos for the feet. There’s Louis Vuitton’s seven-inch shoe that combines a gold wedge along the bottom with a lethal black stiletto. And British designer Antonio Berardi’s $6,000 heelless high-heeled boots worn by Victoria Beckham last month, an ingenious invention that pitches its wearer onto the balls of her feet, with nothing at all under her heel.
One could argue shoes are now so fetishized à la Sex and the City they’re no longer expected to serve any utilitarian function—like walking. These shoes are “more art than streetwear,” says Debra Anissimoff, owner of Toronto shoe store Zola. “Look at Prada this season, with those huge ruffles. And, truthfully, the proportion isn’t flattering on the foot.” Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, says she hasn’t seen shoes this wacky since the surrealists’ influence on fashion in the 1930s inspired designer André Perugia to create Dali-esque footwear shaped like fish.
Then, like now, the economy was in distress. Extreme high heels were part of the cultural fantasy life, showing up in Hollywood movies, says Semmelhack. “Maybe it seems facile, but it literally was uplifting. There was a kind of caprice that was lighthearted.” Platforms reappeared in the seventies, another time of oil crunch and unpopular war. After the Milan shows, Alison Veness-McGourty, the editor of Australia’s Grazia, called the heels “an anti-recession thing”: “The higher you go, the further from reality.”
But extreme heels actually do reflect economic reality. It’s no coincidence these surreal cloppers mirror the fantastical architecture going up in Dubai, Russia, India and China, all emerging economic superpowers. “Designers want to get a foot into these markets,” says Anissimoff. “North America is small potatoes.” Buyers don’t even ask price, designers tell her. “And they’re the ones with the most exaggerated pieces.”
What draws women to these “statement shoes” is the fact they definitely make a statement, like the unambiguous shout-out telegraphed by Madonna at her recent movie premiere where she turned up in Chanel’s $1,925 “Miami Vice” pumps with heels shaped like revolvers. Spiked heels allow women to feel like in-charge urban Amazons: recall Sarah Palin striding through the Republican convention in her Naughty Monkey Double Dare pumps. Or Frenchwomen who are allergic to flat heels. Reflexively they’re linked to female power, though the “power” they summon is more S&M boudoir than boardroom. Time magazine recently defined extreme heels as “the perfect shoes for negotiating the complicated landscape where authority meets beauty.” Semmelhack scoffs at the heel-power linkage. “If these shoes were the pinnacles of power you’d imagine they’d work for both sexes,” she says. Olivia Richardson, head fashion buyer at Liberty in London, floated the theory another way: “It’s more of an empowering assertion of your own femininity.”
Maybe. But how empowering is the image of Paltrow in fabulous seven-inch Giuseppe Zanottis tottering down the stairs of Paris’s Costes Hotel clinging to a bodyguard for dear life? It’s a reminder of the last time extreme heels were status symbols—the 15th century, when courtesans who wore them required an aide to walk. But maybe Paltow’s on to something. Maybe learning to be comfortable with not being comfortable is now the ultimate fashion statement.