The stiletto

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The story of the stiletto began at the dawn of a new world. The Second World The Second World War had ended and the protocols of tradition were deemed irrelevant. In an effort to restore the pre-WW2 status quo, governments campaigned to lure women back into the home in order to repopulate the nation and devote their existence to their husbands once again. But the taste of feminine power had been hard won and was never to be relinquished again. In 1947, Christian Dior addressed this seismic social shift with the infamous New Look. As hemlines rose, there was a new focus on what was happening south of a woman’s ankle. A new shoe was needed to accompany this new powerful femininity. Working alongside Dior, a young shoe designer named Roger Vivier “traced a silhouette with a single stroke” that would serve as the ultimate antithesis to the previously clumpy wooden-heeled footwear designs of the 1930s and ’40s. It was the stiletto.

With fans ranging from Grace Kelly to Queen Elizabeth II, who requested a pair of gold kidskin heels studded with rubies to wear at her Coronation, Vivier’s heel became the height of style and sophistication. By 1952 the stiletto, ominously christened thus by US Vogue because of the heel’s resemblance to the shape of a stiletto knife, was perfected into the classic vertiginous heel we recognise today. Versions of the pump shape featuring a pointed toe and tapered heel were popping up ubiquitously across a myriad of designers, including footwear legend Salvatore Ferragamo and the inimitable Charles Jourdan, whose iconic campaigns shot by Guy Bourdin wholly embodied the tantalising nature of the new heel. Once designers gave way to the high street, London’s East End footwear designer Gina added the stiletto heel’s final innovation; the metal core.

The synchronicity between sex and the stiletto was key to the shoe’s appeal. Before the stiletto erupted into the mainstream with Vivier’s initial design in the 1950s, a similar heel design was dreamed up by a cross-section of pornographers. Super-long slender heels were often featured in illustrations as a torture weapon. Experts have discussed the fetishist power of the stiletto for decades. Psychiatrists have suggested the heel as a phallic symbol and even a substitute for penis envy, a hidden desire to possess a male organ according to Freudian psychoanalysis. Footwear historian Dr William Rossi follows this Freudian trail of thought with the belief that women derive a sadomasochistic pleasure in wearing stilettos; “the sadism lies in the phallicism of the heel itself, as though the woman has taken possession of the male’s genital powers”.

Despite this notion there is no denying the immediate feminine accentuation that comes with slipping on a stiletto, says Claire Foster, Footwear Editor at WGSN; “they do impart an unmistakable confidence and allure, emphasising the basic womanly shape, with added stature.” The wearer is suspended in an exaggerated state of femininity; the leg is elongated and the back is arched commanding the bust and derrière to protrude. The female form becomes completely animated – think Jessica Rabbit.

This potent mix of sex and power has deemed the stiletto the shoe of choice to fearless femmes ever since its inception. Marilyn Monroe had the right heel of each of her pairs shortened in order to achieve her signature wiggle, famously likened to “two puppies fighting under a silk sheet” by journalist James Bacon. Manolo Blahnik captured the physical effect perfectly. “The delicacy of the stiletto gives any woman a graceful, almost floating silhouette. In a high heel she will always walk sensuously with a swaying movement.”

True to its controversial form, the design of the heel sparked fashion pandemonium from day one. In 1953 photojournalism magazine Picture Post featured a report about the hazards of the stiletto in which a model was documented tripping and falling. This anti-stiletto consensus climaxed in the early 1960s when the shoe was banned from public buildings because of the inevitable damage it would cause to floors. Stiletto aficionados responded by wearing even thinner and higher designs.

But the most momentous moment of the stiletto movement was yet to come with 1980s power dressing. As the decade progressed the businesswoman gravitated towards the stiletto as a signifier of a new brand of feminine domination. As the antithesis to the footwear regulations stated in Molloy’s manual, the stiletto of the 1980s became loaded with powerful connotation; women had challenged conventions written by men in more ways than one. Additionally, the sense of empowerment that the stiletto provided was exclusive to women. As Christian Louboutin explained, “the stiletto is a feminine weapon that men don’t have.”

With the Spring/Summer ’10 catwalk collections stilettos were once again prominent as the boundaries of convention were bent and twisted. The late Alexander McQueen showed the most terrifically controversial examples, described by Sarah Mower as “grotesque shoes that looked like the armoured heads of a fantastical breed of antediluvian sea monster”. In a collection inspired by a Lewis Carroll/Tim Burton fantasyland, Versace featured a killer, jagged version with a mirrored heel. Lanvin struck a more timeless tone with a luxurious quilted leather version.

Within the repetitive world of fashion, where the best designs survive through constant resurrection, the stiletto might just be the shoe of a thousand lives. As Terry de Havilland explains, “There will always be stilettos. They go in and out of fashion, but they’re always in style.” Fashion’s love affair with the stiletto has never wavered. The spindly heel seems to epitomise all that fashion aspires to be: courageous, daring and ever so slightly ridiculous, but in the words of the great couturier Christian Lacroix, fashion should be “fun, foolish, almost unwearable.”

by Jodie Kharas 

From the Glass Archive – Issue two – Rapture

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