High heels

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.


Brennan circles around the shoes from all angles, and her brief chapters add up to a kaleidoscopic view of feminine public existence, both wide-ranging and thoughtful. She describes the high heel shoes she wore for her own job at the United Nations, and she describes falling down stairs in the course of doing her job while wearing them. There’s another short chapter about the tall tale that expensive high heels don’t hurt, only cheap ones do, so if you’re in pain it’s because you’re either too poor or too cheap. She discusses the cultural moments when they were seen as masculine. There’s another chapter about Daphne escaping Apollo by becoming a tree, and one about Eddie Izzard’s heeled boots. Very simply—too simply, as Brennan’s book illustrates—the paradox of the shoes is that women become socially mobile by wearing shoes that impede their physical mobility. It’s easy to reject a practice like foot binding once the resulting feet are no longer considered beautiful, but while high heels are beautiful within our culture, rejecting them means cutting ourselves off from vital pleasures.

She wasn’t the first major designer of the 20th century to design for uncorseted women, most of the fashion establishment in Paris began making empire-waisted gowns once the tough corsets of the late 19th century began to seem unhealthy and unattractive. Before Chanel, the tightest part of a woman’s dress was around her floating ribs or higher, and it would still be a dress that’s tight at the waist, looser above and below. It’s an aesthetic nudge away from what came before, not a revolution.

…She sold expensive clothes made of rough fabrics associated with laborers, decorated with cheap fur and costume jewelry associated with sex workers. At the age of 20, she was an impoverished sex worker herself and, by the age of 50, a billionaire in adjusted currency—all for selling a version of fashion that was so modernist that it must have looked like cubism to her first buyers. (Incidentally, she also designed Pablo Picasso’s iconic striped shirt.) There are a few styles women commonly wear in 21st century American or European cities that are tighter at the waist and looser at the hips, but most of our daily clothes are fitted around the hips, low belly, and butt. Jeans and a nice top, a skirt suit, yoga pants and a sweatshirt all have this silhouette. Visible panty lines are also part of Chanel’s legacy.

Motion was the heart of her designs—she made things that women could move in, specifically calculating the number of inches a person needed around her waist in order to move freely and then making her dresses and jackets with that space. Flat shoes were also part of the Chanel look, so women could walk comfortably. She put fringes on evening gowns to accentuate the motion of bodies that seemed naked underneath clothes. These were forms of fashion cubism compared with petticoating and bustling of previous generations. The degree of change and the amount it was embraced by her society is unprecedented in the course of design history. Even if there’s nothing else astonishing about her story, she may be the only person who ever commuted sexual power into actual power. Not influence, not a good marriage, not the power behind the throne, but real power—and she used that power to be a Nazi.

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