Imogen Shaw

These are slippery times for the high heel. Nicola Thorp, a temporary receptionist at PricewaterhouseCoopers, claims that she was sent home from an assignment after refusing to wear heels for eight hours, in a role that required frequent walking. Ms Thorp has started a petition to make it illegal for companies to make women wear high heels at work. She now has over 140,000 signatures.

In search of some background on this scourge, I excavated The New York Times’s online archive. A piece entitled ‘The Origin of High Shoe Heels’ from August 1893 notes that a “vagary of fashion still somewhat tolerated is the high shoe heel…this libel upon nature is of ancient origin…its use, once valuable and needed, has been perverted into an inartistic and unsanitary service”. The earliest heels, the piece goes on, originated in Ancient Persia, to raise the feet from the “burning sands of that country, and were about two inches high”. In Venice, “the motive was comically different…jealous husbands thought they would be able to keep their wives at home”.

120 years on, the “libel upon nature” continues to frustrate and divide. I have several thoughts on this issue. The first is that, as a heterosexual cis-male, I ought to have no opinion at all. Heels are the preserve of those who wear them. Lonely experience has taught me that, as in most matters to do with women, my attentions are probably unwanted.

Still, I barrel on; among other things, high heels are an issue between genders, too. Whatever its precursors, the raising of height cannot be entirely separated from a need to elevate and an attempt to be closer to eye level when surrounded by taller people. There is a sexualised element to this, too. Some see the leg on heels as more attractive, with corns and bunions a small price to pay for calves that appear more defined in heels.

The price is tangible in other ways. Jimmy Choo pumps start at £395. A glance at the Manolo Blahnik website points to an average price of £500. Christian Louboutin’s signature red soles in black leather will set you back at least £425. No wonder the cost of Carrie Bradshaw’s 100 pairs of heels amounted to a deposit on an apartment in New York 15 years ago. The element of privilege and class warfare inherent in the way we deal with heels extends to the office. Both the women who have complained about dress requirements are in roles that might be regarded as less powerful. I doubt that edict would require a female partner to wear heels at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Higher shoe height is less egregious when it is a choice.

When available, the way that choice is exercised can be a telling intimation of intention. A lawyer friend tells me that she tends not to wear heels to work when she wants to signal that she means business. “I’m telling people that I want to be taken seriously, not that I want to be their wife.” Perceptions cut both ways. Men I know judge women based on how steady they seem on their feet. Someone who looks likely to fall over might suggest an unfamiliarity with heels and hence other things about her background. This is unfair. Storm grates seem designed to trap thin-tipped heels. The polished marble floors of office buildings are as likely to catch those of us wearing leather-soled shoes unawares as they are the wearer of a pair of three-inch pumps.

Socially, too, the choice to wear heels of a certain height has connotations. I am not the only man of about 6’ who’s lived in New York and been filled with dread when confronted with an online dating profile of someone acceptable that reads “I’m 5’11” and I like wearing heels; midgets needn’t apply”. There are ethnic and socio-economic aspects to such selection masked as “just personal preference”. Studies correlating height with ethnicity and nutrition levels (and hence class or parental wealth) are legion. If Carrie were a self-interested male, she might ask: by determining that some people are just too short, do we risk excluding those who might be just right?

These are minor considerations as we prepare to dress our best before behaving our worst. One acquaintance planning to attend the Bacchanalian orgy at St John’s says she’ll be wearing heels not because she wants to look tall (and despite the pain they are likely to cause), but because her long ball dress will trail otherwise and she doesn’t want to ruin it. All of the women with whom I’ve spoken tell me that no-one is forcing them to wear heels. It is their own choice to do so. I am glad that this is true for my friends. It was not for Ms Thorp, and is not for many women in service positions or a host of other jobs where autonomy is compromised.

I risk mansplaining by saying much more than that I hope everyone exercises that choice thoughtfully, and that we realise what a privilege it is to have the choice. I’ve recently engaged in an earnest Facebook discussion regarding the appropriateness of pairing a cummerbund with braces this May Week, so am conscious of the privilege inherent in the way men dress here, too. My final hope is that no-one wears heels that are longer than they want. As a few well-intentioned women have told me when trying to calm my sobs, how long something is matters much less than what you do with it. This May Week, I think it will be no bad thing to dress to ensure that what we do above all is have good, clean, fun – whatever our height for the night might be.

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