Are High Heels Still A Sign Of Oppression?

As chunky trainers gather dust on high street shelves, sky-high stilettos have become divisive. For some they symbolize the patriarchy, for others, they mean sex, empowerment and fluidity.

Professor Mary Beard has described high heels as “a symbol of women’s oppression” in conversation with renowned show designer Manolo Blahnik.

Some weeks ago, the pair spoke about their relationship and women’s shoes on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Despite saying she had been told by numerous individuals that Blahnik’s shoes are comfortable, the classicist and author said: “By and large, [high heels] are a symbol of women’s oppression.”

"We deplore things like Chinese foot-binding; we think how terrible – and then we push women with the specious idea that it’s giving them power into shoes they can hardly balance in," she continued. 

Defending his honour, Blahnik counteracted by saying: “In high heels, you just feel powerful.”

Beard firmly disagreed.

The topic of high heels has come back into vogue purely due to their bewildering absence from seasonal shows. 

In January 2014 the late Karl Lagerfeld held a Chanel haute couture show set in the fictional ‘Cambon Club’.

Led by Cara Delevingne, models ambled at a sultry pace down the runway to the sounds of a string orchestra, while flogging bejewelled wares. So far, so haute couture.

The big difference? Each model’s outfit was completed with some bespoke sneakers, each pair costing an estimated €3,000 and taking some 30+ hours to make. But while the choice of footwear may have raised eyebrows, it also represented a radical step.

Five years on, trainers are still as zeitgeisty as they were then, with enough chunky designs available now to beat the band and then some. 

Celebrity-favourites include Louis Vuitton Archlights and the Balenciaga Triple S, both coming in at around €600 – €1,000 a pair, depending on the style, colour and iteration.

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Serena Williams even wore her sneakers to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding after-party under her Valentino gown, not to mention her own wedding party.

In Bad Feminist, writer Roxane Gay defends such stereotypical “female” things as her love of pink, rejecting the idea that feminism must exclude the trappings of female culture. However, is denigrating girliness to the point of avoidance actually heightening the oppressive undercurrent?

We're living in a time where women's thoughts and choices are actually being listened to – however, one must be careful not to hold up the metaphor for the thing above the thing itself.

Now is also a time in which shoes of all kinds are available to men, women and those of the non-binary persuasion – meaning the patriarchal burden is being shared, diluted and even flipped.

The mobility of women is and has been restricted physically through fashion, but most of all it has been restricted legally, financially, professionally, medically, intellectually, sexually, politically. That is to say, systemically.

However, when the system no longer panders to misogyny – do old rules still apply?

Maybe that's not the point. The point seems to be that instead of banning formerly oppressive symbols, we should be eschewing enforced gender expectations and social norms instead.

Then they are just what are they supposed to be – a pair of shoes. The details of which are be left up to the individual. 

After all, one person's oppression can be another’s liberation.

Main image by @withjean

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