High Heel (2019): Summer Brennan

★★★★

Bloomsbury Object Lessons

What do you think of when you think of high heels? For me, there’s a divide between high heels ‘in the wild’ and my own experience. High heels in general are elegant: they’re worn by women who are smart, professional and probably wealthy enough to jump in a taxi rather than risk getting their stiletto wedged in a Tube station escalator. A woman of this type would probably not get her heel trapped in a grille on a staircase, and has to grimly hunker down, one shoe on, one shoe off, to winkle it out. (That was me.) Heels have a mythos of their own, provoking envy, longing and pride in otherwise quite reasonable women, and transforming their designers into household names; but why should this be? Exactly what is it that makes the high heel such an enduring object of obsession? The Bloomsbury Object Lessons series is always engaging, but Summer Brennan’s investigation of the heel is a particular favourite so far. Embracing Greek myth, fairy tales, history, fashion and biology, she sets out on a quest to understand exactly why this most uncomfortable of shoes has become the most ubiquitous. Fierce, feminist and fascinating.

For Christmas 2005, I asked my parents to buy me Camilla Morton’s book How to Walk in High Heels. It promised to teach me all sorts of things that I would need as a newly-fledged adult, but I was most interested in the bit about heels. I was twenty, and about to leave university, and felt certain that a successful professional woman would wear heels (an impression reinforced by the Devil Wears Prada film the following year). I dutifully bought the most expensive heels I could afford, but have never learned to feel comfortable in them: a shame, given that my fiancé is over a foot taller than me. For me, heels mean an event: a posh night out where I’m wearing a dress and really can’t get away with flats. They mean sitting down as much as possible; a constant leitmotif of discomfort in the back of my mind; the sheer relief of taking them off at the end of the night and feeling my reddened feet expand gratefully into the air. Even now, when I slink flat-footed into an exhibition opening or art fair, I can’t help feeling as if I’m breaking the code in some way, revealing that I’m not the established woman I claim to be, but merely a scruffy student in disguise. Perhaps, if I’d read Brennan’s book at a younger age, I’d now feel less self-conscious about failing to buy in to fashion’s ‘consensual martyrdom’.

The women of 17th-century Massachusetts must have looked forward to receiving the new fashions from the old country. However, when they received word of ‘the bewitching new high-heeled shoe styles from France‘, something strange happened. Their community elders enacted an extraordinary law, that any woman ‘who used high-heeled shoes to seduce a man into marriage would be tried and punished as a witch‘. High heels have elicited mixed reactions ever since: the acknowledgement of their allure, alongside a suspicion of their power. There are dark parallels between this law, which blamed women and their shoes for luring men into marriages, with modern responses to rape cases, in which women are accused of provoking their attackers with their outfits, ‘as if shoes cast a spell that a perpetrator can’t resist‘. But what’s a woman to do? Brennan’s book explores the mixed messages that women are given, both explicitly and implicitly. We receive approval when we wear heels ‘in the boardroom or at the gala‘, but criticism if we wear them to walk home late at night. How is a woman to judge the watershed point between her heels being appropriate signs of poise and status, and an apparently open invitation to attack? Early in the book, Brennan deals with one of the most disturbing questions of all: how is it that the shoes which women are brought up to see as the most elegant, the most prestigious, beautiful and admirable, are also the shoes in which it’s hardest to run away from a man?

For me, the strength of Brennan’s book is in the way that it spirals out to consider the historical context of high heels, which started out as men’s shoes: military garb, in which the heel helped to grip the stirrup. She even nods to the cultural history of platforms, which appear in towering form on ancient monumental statues of Aphrodite, and which persisted through functional medieval pattens until their apogee in the tall chopines of Renaissance Venice. As she goes, she looks at the way that society responded to women’s footwear, which can be traced to some degree through fairy tales – and trust me, once you start thinking about it, it becomes incredible that so many fairy tales and myths boil down to women wearing, or not wearing shoes – having feet, or not having them – shoes as traps, or shoes as freedom. Think of Daphne, running from Apollo and being rooted into the ground, feet-upwards; or Cinderella and her mythical ancestor, the Chinese Yexian. Think of the Twelve Dancing Princesses, whose secret is betrayed by their worn-out dancing slippers. Think of the Little Mermaid, who makes such sacrifices in order to have feet, and shoes, and whose constant pain is hidden from others, cloaked beneath her outward exquisite grace. And think, too, of Hans Christian Andersen’s other story, the most explicit warning against the vanity of footwear ever written: The Red Shoes.

I love delving into fairy tales, and seeing what they reveal about the societies which created them. Brennan has some fascinating insights in this area, especially when she draws attention to the contrasting treatments of men and women. ‘Men’s folkloric footwear,’ she observes, ‘is usually an instant boost to power… Fairy tale shoes for women and girls are often correctional, if not dangerous, or serve as stand-ins for her character or worth.’ And what’s true in fairy tales is often true in reality as well. If a shoe is a metaphor for a woman’s virtue, then surely nothing achieves that quite so brilliantly as a shoe that makes it difficult for her to move or be independent – whether that’s a towering modern stiletto or the lotus shoes of China which, from the 10th century until the 20th, encased the repeatedly broken, tiny bound feet of elegant women. Foot-binding, thank God, has now died out, but we aren’t free yet: we’ve just yoked ourselves to a different, slightly less painful kind of beauty. Using high heels, we try to make ourselves taller, slimmer, more ‘feminine’ in its most exaggerated sense, deliberately accentuating those parts of the body which distinguish us from men – an artificial attempt to emphasise sexual dimorphism, which provokes one of Brennan’s most interesting discussions. Fashion, it seems, can sometimes be brought into play when biology itself has been found wanting.

Something to bear in mind is that the Object Lessons series gives its authors considerable leeway. These are not precise, objective books: they’re more like a series of linked stories, a set of allusions, the literary equivalent of a dinner party conversation. Each and every one of them is different, and deeply personal. Naturally, approaches differ, and I’ve found myself responding in a variety of ways: I’ve really enjoyed some, been interested by others, and found one or two utterly bewildering. It just so happens that High Heel was the first one I read – although I’m only writing about it now, two years later – and the way it approached its subject, with a blend of poetry, mythology, literature, fable and politics, was particularly to my taste. Brennan writes beautifully, which also helps, with a light and lyrical touch, and hers is a book that speaks to everyone who’s ever tried on a pair of high heels, admired them or excoriated them. A lively, inclusive and engaging romp, full of thought-provoking facts.

The story of a person’s shoes is the story of her function in society, and our footprints are the marks we leave, where we’ve been and the direction we’re going… Pain, pleasure, dreams, desire, status, blood – these are the refrains in the songs of women as we strut, hobble, dance and walk through this man-made labyrinth we call the world.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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