Falling Flat: Are The Days Of High Heels Coming To An End?

Sep 8, 2019
Originally published on September 9, 2019 12:19 pm

Fashion Week is underway in New York City, which means you can count on seeing many models working to navigate the runway while wearing high heels.

In previous years, videos have shown models trying to make their way down the runways in high heels, but tripping, stumbling and sometimes even falling because the shoes are so difficult to walk in.

From Louboutins to Manolo Blahniks, high heels have had their place in both pop culture and high fashion, but author Lauren Bravo says that the days of high heels could be numbered.

Bravo recounted her own history with heels in a piece for Refinery29 titled, "Down to Earth: Has 2019 Killed the High Heel?" She talks about having to go to the hospital in her 20s and how she protested when one of her roommates brought her flats to wear. She also acknowledges the pain of wearing heels and how she would take ibuprofen before going out to dance.

Bravo spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about why women have liked heels so much in the past and why so many are now leaving them behind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On why she once liked heels so much

I think it was about the theatricality of heels. I don't think I ever really wore them for men, certainly, and I don't think I really wore them because I felt that I had to. But I loved the feeling of that kind of stomp, that authority that they give you. And if I'm really honest, I think it was more about the proportions of an outfit. So I felt like if I was wearing a certain hemline, it would look better with a heel and there was just a kind of unspoken assumption that for certain occasions, particularly on a night out, you would bring out the big guns — you'd put a heel on. It wasn't until I got into my late 20s, my early 30s that I really started questioning that.

On why heels have persisted as a fashion staple

I think it's an answer with many layers. I think on some level, it's the idea that heels are associated with making an effort. I think if we're putting ourselves in a position where we're in some degree of pain, it's almost, you know, I guess the old adage, "no pain, no gain." [It's] this idea that if we're slightly uncomfortable, then perhaps we are somehow performing better. For decades there's been this idea that women were not professional unless they were tottering around in a heel. But I think if you strip all that away and go down to really base level, we've got to admit that you know it is — it's patriarchal and it's misogynistic. This idea that women should be sort of slowed down and debilitated.

On why she believes the popularity of heels may be fading

Well, fashion really has led us in a certain direction. For the last few years we've seen the rise of the fashion sneaker. We've seen magazine editors, models, celebrities comfortably kind of bouncing around in sneakers, and suddenly dress codes have changed. It's completely acceptable to turn up to quite a smart party wearing a lovely dress with a pair of sneakers on the bottom. This summer we've seen the rise of the ugly sandal as well. I mean, I spent all summer in Birkenstocks and a few years ago I would never have dreamt of putting my foot in something as ugly as a Birkenstock. For those of us that do love fashion, it's almost like we needed to wait for fashion to say, "Oh you know what, it's OK for you to be comfortable." Once we got comfy we thought, "Hang on a minute. I don't know if I'm gonna go back again."

On whether the fashion industry is following or leading the tastes of consumers

I think it's probably a bit of both. I think that fashion will always kind of do what it wants to do and there will be always be some designers that will want to kind of do something that feels contradictory. But at the same time, I think you're completely right and I think that feminism has been so vocal and it's been making so many headlines over the last five or 10 years that actually designers would be mad not to give women what they want. And I do think that they are getting a lot of messages [that] comfort is rising up our agenda.

On the backlash to Melania Trump's decision to wear high heels on a trip to visit people in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

I think that what that shows to me as sort of an observer is that these dress codes are so ingrained that I would imagine for Melania, potentially, it just would not occur to her in a public appearance to not be wearing heels. I think certainly we see the same with the royal family in the U.K. — Kate Middleton coming out of the hospital each time after having her babies wearing these enormous heels, and you know, womankind across the world I think was wincing. Looking at those photos thinking, "Oh God, that's the last thing you want to be wearing when you've just given birth." And I do think that we tend to associate high heels with making an effort with being appropriate and no more so than for these figures who [have] the eyes of the world on them.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So while sneakerheads are in D.C., in New York City, Fashion Week is underway, where designers show off their new looks for the coming season. And have you ever seen a video where models trying to navigate the runway in insanely high heels literally cannot make it - tripping, stumbling, even falling?

A recent article on the lifestyle website Refinery29 suggested those days might be numbered, if not on the runway, at least for the rest of us mortals. The piece is titled "Down To Earth: Has 2019 Killed The High Heel?" The author, Lauren Bravo, is with us now from the BBC in London. Lauren Bravo, thanks so much for being with us.

LAUREN BRAVO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So you open the article with the following scenario. You talk about being in your early 20s and having to go to the hospital. And when your roommates bring you some footwear to take to the hospital, you criticize them for bringing you flats.

BRAVO: Yeah. That really happened.

MARTIN: I believe you - popping ibuprofen before going out to dance to stop the pain, wearing high heels all day. You had it bad.

BRAVO: I really did. I was a little bit of a slave to heels, and I don't think I even knew it.

MARTIN: Why is that? Why do you think you like them so much? And obviously you're not the only one. A lot of people like them.

BRAVO: Do you know, I think it was about the theatricality of heels. I don't think I ever really wore them for men, certainly. And I don't think I really wore them because I felt that I had to. But I loved the feeling of that kind of stomp, that authority that they give you.

And if I'm really honest, I think it was more about the proportions of an outfit. So I felt like if I was wearing a certain hemline, it would look better with a heel. And there was just a kind of unspoken assumption that, for certain occasions, particularly on a night out, you would bring out the big guns. You'd put a heel on. And I think it wasn't until I got into my late 20s and my early 30s that I really started questioning that.

MARTIN: There's a line in your piece that I want to read. You say that, (reading) truth is heels can make us feel powerful, and they can do the opposite, sometimes both at once. They slow us to a stately, commanding stride, and they threaten to topple us over in the street. They elevate and they debilitate.

It's fascinating. Why do you think that heels have persisted as a fashion staple for women as long as they have? And I was, of course, reading up on the history of this and realizing that, you know, men initially were the ones that wore heels at first, when they were first invented because they helped you stay in the saddle on a horse more easily, which makes sense. So why do you think that they have almost - well, in some places, a requirement for - considered to be for - formal attire for women.

BRAVO: Yeah. I mean, I think it's an answer with many layers. I think, on some level, it's the idea that heels are associated with making an effort. I think if we're putting ourselves in a position where we're in some degree of pain, it's almost, you know, I guess the old adage no pain no gain. It's this idea that if we're slightly uncomfortable, then perhaps we are somehow performing better.

For decades there has been this idea that women were not professional unless they were torturing around in a heel. But I think if you strip all that away and go down to really base level, we've got to admit that, you know, it is - it's patriarchal, and it's misogynistic. It's this idea that women should be sort of slowed down and debilitated.

So I think it's quite tricky. I think, you know, in the paragraph you just read out, I was trying to sort of explore that duality that we get with a lot of these conversations. We have it around, you know, bikini waxes and makeup and a lot of the sort of traditional trappings of femininity, this idea that it can be something we enjoy doing and that we sort of take a pleasure in doing. But it's impossible to know whether we would be doing it if we lived outside a patriarchal society.

MARTIN: So why do you say you suspect that they might be over?

BRAVO: Well, fashion really has led us in a certain direction. So for the last few years, we've seen the rise of the fashion sneaker. We've seen, you know, magazine editors, models, celebrities comfortably kind of bouncing around in sneakers. And suddenly, dress codes have changed. So it's completely acceptable to turn up to quite a smart party wearing a lovely dress with a pair of sneakers on the bottom. This summer we've seen the rise of the ugly sandal as well.

So for me, I think my kind of watershed moment was - I mean, I spent all summer in Birkenstocks. And a few years ago, I would never have dreamt of putting my feet in something as ugly as a Birkenstock - because fashion permitted me to do it. And it's kind of embarrassing to admit that I almost needed that.

And for some of us - not all of us, of course, lots of people don't care about following trends - but for those of us that do love fashion, it's almost like we needed to wait for fashion to say, oh, do you know what, it's OK for you to be comfortable. And then once we got comfy, we thought, hang on a minute. I don't know if I'm going to go back again.

MARTIN: And this is where I wonder whether fashion is leading or following. But I'm thinking about last year, for example, Kristen Stewart took off her heels at the Cannes Film Festival, protesting the high heel-only policy. So it makes me wonder, is this connected in part to the #MeToo movement or you maybe - maybe you want to call it the resurgence of the feminist movement, where women are saying that I'm going to wear what I want to wear, deal with it, and then the fashion industry follows?

BRAVO: Yeah. I think it's probably a bit of both. I think that fashion will always kind of do what it wants to do. And there will be always be some designers that will want to kind of do something that feels contradictory. But at the same time, I think you're completely right. And I think that feminism has been so vocal, and it's been making so many headlines over the last five or 10 years that, actually, designers would be mad not to give women what they want. You know, ultimately, fashion is a business like everything else. And I do think that they are getting a lot of messages in terms of comfort is rising up our agenda.

MARTIN: Now, it's interesting because I'm tempted to ask, you know, why does this matter? But then I'm thinking about how first lady Melania Trump back here in the U.S., who wears stilettos a lot. Of course, she is a former model herself and presumably never stumbled, as some have wearing those sky-high heels. But you remember that she wore - you may or may not remember this that she was on her way to visit people in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and was photographed wearing very high heels on her way to the helicopter to go and visit. Some people were really upset about that. And I just wondered - I know you don't live here, but what do you think that's about?

BRAVO: Far be it for me to sort of put words in the first lady's mouth, but I think that what that shows to me anyway, as an observer, is that these dress codes are so ingrained that I would imagine for Melania potentially it just would not occur to her in a public appearance to not be wearing heels.

You know, I think certainly we see the same with the royal family in the U.K., Kate Middleton coming out of the hospital each time after having her babies wearing these enormous heels. And, you know, womankind across the world, I think, was wincing looking at those photos, thinking, oh, God, that's the last thing you want to be wearing when you've just given birth.

And I do think that we tend to associate high heels with making an effort, with being appropriate and no more so than for these figures who are - have the eyes of the world on them.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know I'm going to ask you, what are you wearing now?

BRAVO: I've got trainers on, Nike Air Force 1s. And I've got a long dress on with them, and they're so comfortable.

MARTIN: Stylish though, Air Force 1s, very hard to get.

BRAVO: Thank you.

MARTIN: OK. That is Lauren Bravo. She's the author of the piece we've been talking about - "Down To Earth: Has 2019 Killed The Heel?" And she's the author of "What Would The Spice Girls Do?: How The Girl Power Generation Grew Up." Lauren Bravo, thank you so much for talking to us.

BRAVO: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.