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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 1
It’s Members Week at Quartz, so we let our members pick today’s Obsession topic! Thanks, members!
The high heel may have started out as an eminently practical tool for equestrians. Over the last 1,000 years, however, this family of footwear has become a multi-billion dollar industry, a legible canvas for our deepest desires, a feminist lightning rod, and a literal pain in the butt. Sneakerheads and a global pandemic may be momentarily serving the stiletto—and its shorter, stockier cousins—a curveball. But no matter how many times it falls, the heel has a way of getting right back up again.
Watch your step.
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 2
20 inches (50 cm): Height of the tallest 16th century Venetian “chopine” platform shoes, which necessitated using maids as crutches
9: The average number of high heels a heel-wearing woman owns, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association (pdf)
$34.1 billion: Value of the global high heel market, as of 2019
1 hour, 6 minutes, and 48 seconds: The average amount of time it takes for a high heel-wearing foot to start hurting
8 hours, 7 minutes: The duration of a 2018 speech defending young undocumented immigrants given by US House speaker Nancy Pelosi—while wearing four-inch heels
2,000: Pairs of shoes identified in Prince’s Paisley Park mansion after his death, almost all of them heels
100: Pairs of Manolo Blahniks owned by Sex and the City’s (fictional) Carrie Bradshaw, a collection that would be worth more than $40,000
20 inches (50 cm): Height of the world’s highest heels sold commercially, created by Indian designer James Syiemiong in 2004
9 ft 3 (2.82 m): Height of the world’s largest high-heeled shoe; alas there are no feet large enough to wear it
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 3
When heels first arrived in western Europe, they were originally made exclusively for men, who used them to add a few inches to their height, showcase their power, and literally raise themselves above the filth in the streets. King Louis XIV of France, for example, was just 5 ft 4 (1.62 m)—until he added his 4-inch signature red heels. But in the 17th century, so-called “mannish women” began experimenting with a more masculine aesthetic, and subsequently turned to the heel as a kind of proto-feminist experiment. “It was seen as both fashionable and daring,” Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada, told Quartz.
For a few decades, heels added an androgynous flair to any outfit. But that ended with the Enlightenment, which advanced the idea that men were rational beings and women were frivolous, irrational creatures. “Fashion becomes a way of expressing these differences,” Semmelhack says. High heels, ever an impractical shoe, became associated with femininity. Aside from a brief period in the 1970s (disco heels, anyone?), most Americans have adhered to these gendered conceptions of footwear ever since.
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 4
~0 CE: Male Greco-Roman actors wear thick, cork-soled platforms to exaggerate their heights when they portray gods and royalty.
10th century: Persian soldiers adopt high heels to keep their feet in their stirrups—and allow them to wield weightier weapons.
1533: A diminutive 14-year-old Catherine de Medici wears heeled shoes to impress the French.
1670s: Louis XIV of France issues an edict barring non-courtiers from wearing red heels.
1860s: The earliest pornographic photos feature women wearing nothing but high heels.
1940s: Pinup girls, whose posters are widely distributed during World War II, cement the relationship between femininity and heels.
1951: French designer André Perugia begins marketing his 4-inch needle heel, one of the first stilettos.
1993: Supermodel Naomi Campbell takes a tumble on the Vivienne Westwood runway in 9-inch platform heels.
2015: Jurassic World makes headlines for forcing its main female character, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, to run through the jungle in stilettos.
2018: Apple introduces a blue ballet flat emoji, based on a campaign by Florie Hutchinson to offer more variety beyond the red stiletto.
2019: The #KuToo movement (a play on the word kutsu, for shoe, and kutsuu, for pain) in Japan aims to end sexist dress codes mandating high heels.
2020: Sales at Jimmy Choo, known for statuesque stilettos, decline 23% as lockdowns shutter stores—and any place someone might bother to wear high heels.
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 5
“Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.”
— Cartoonist Bob Thaves
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 6
A thousand years of design have allowed dozens of different kinds of heels to develop. Here are some of the most popular, by period.
Chopine: A platform overshoe, popular among Venetian courtesans from the 15th to 17th centuries, designed to elevate the wearer so their real shoes and gowns weren’t soiled.
Pompadour heel: Also known as the “French heel” and reportedly named for King Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, these shoes have pointy toes and a steep, curved back.
Spool heel: Wide at the bottom and narrower in the middle, like a spool of thread, these more sensible shoes have repeatedly reemerged, including in the US in the 1860s.
Wedge: These thick heels combine the sole and heel into a single piece of material, usually rubber. They seem more stable. They are not.
Stiletto: Named for an Italian dagger, these are the longest, thinnest kind of heels, made possible by high-tensile steel.
Kitten heel: A short stiletto that swoops in from the back edge of the shoe, these demure heels are popular in business and politics, including among Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 7
Heels push your chest out and your butt up, which is why many love the way they make the wearer look, but this forced posture can have serious consequences for your health. Elevating the back of your foot forces your arch and forefoot to bear the brunt of your body weight. This precarity leads to an increased risk of falling and acute injury, ranging from rolled ankles to penetrating wounds from stilettos. Sporting heels can also have more severe consequences over time. Researchers have linked regularly wearing heels to everything from back, knee, and hip pain to varicose veins and hammertoe, a permanent and potentially painful bend in the middle joint of a toe.
Today, some companies are hoping to tip the balance using 3-D printing technology. One such start-up, True Gault, offers an iPhone app that scans your feet. Taking that data—and the data of thousands of other people’s feet—the company then manufactures a left shoe and a right shoe, each with custom dimensions. The idea is to create a shoe perfectly fitted to your foot, reducing the potential for things like pinching. But whether it can prevent injuries remains to be seen.
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 9
Heels have been a staple for decades, but trend forecasters think they’re on the outs, courtesy of continuing efforts in gender equality and a lower tolerance for physical discomfort. The rise of athleisure and sneaker culture have emboldened “heel refuseniks“ who opt for more down-to-earth options, like Birkenstocks or even Crocs.
The pandemic has only accelerated these trends toward “casualization”—no one’s squeezing fancy shoes on to clop between bed, stove, and sofa and back again. Between March and May 2020, sales of dress shoes dropped an additional 70% and have yet to rebound. “Some of us will regard this time as an opportunity to make changes we’ve been wanting to make,” Carolyn Mair, author of The Psychology of Fashion, told the New York Times in April. “We may stop wearing high heels and shapewear. And, if we are feminists, we may see this as a chance to reflect on why we wear these things in the first place.”
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 10
In a recent six-part YouTube series for the Bata Shoe Museum, Jennifer Allison, founder of Canadian shoemaking school Art and Sole Academy, walks viewers through her design and fabrication process. The result? A black and silver brocade “derby”—with a heel!
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Quartz Obsession — High heels — Card 12
In honor of our inaugural Quartz Members Week, we’re bringing a beloved internal Q&A series—Between Two Derns—to the unsuspecting public. Executive editor Kira Bindrim will interview editor in chief Katherine Bell on everything that makes both Katherine and Quartz tick.
We’ll learn what brought Katherine to Quartz, what she wishes she knew about our readers, and (why not?) whether she’d prefer to be a dog or a ghost, among other important questions. Join us (no membership required) on Friday, Nov. 13 from 11am–11:30am Eastern time. You bring the headphones, we’ll bring the cardboard cutouts of Laura Dern. No, seriously.
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