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The Joy of Shoes
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Platform Shoe
Vivienne Westwood, mock crocodile, 12-inch-high (30 centimeters) blue "staggerer" with satin ribbon, 1993

Platform Shoe
Photograph by Mitchell Feinberg
By Cathy Newman

Gillion Carrara, a professor in the fashion department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is demonstrating the anatomical effect of the high heel. "Look what happens when I put on a high heel," she says, pulling on a Vivienne Westwood shoe. Westwood, the British designer responsible for the punk look, is famous for having brought supermodel Naomi Campbell to her knees when she sent Campbell down the runway in a pair of platform shoes so high that the supermodel stumbled and fell.

Carrara places the shoe on the floor, steps in and up. "The breasts go out; the derriere juts back; the leg elongates," she says, as her anatomy puts her words into action. "Men find that very attractive."

"The foot is an erotic organ and the shoe is its sexual covering," wrote William A. Rossi, a podiatrist, in The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe. "The shoe is the erotic foot's pimp and procurer."

Surely, it's all those digits. Toe cleavage. Heaving arches.

"Wrong," counters Harold Koda, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. "The shoe isn't the pimp for the foot. It's the other way around. The foot is the pimp for the shoe. It's the shoe that is the erotic object." Cinderella's glass slipper, not her foot, ignited the Prince's ardor.

Feminist alert! The theme of helplessness runs rampant in the history of shoes—from Chinese foot-binding to the 21st-century stiletto. "I like high heels," British photographer David Bailey reportedly said. "It means girls can't run away from me."

The needle-sharp heel called the stiletto, from the Italian word for "dagger," appeared in the postwar years of the early 1950s. After the war and years of Rosie the Riveter masculine dress, fashion turned feminine; the focus turned to babymaking. Technology contributed a steel core allowing for a thin heel that lifted the shoe up like a skyscraper (previous heels, made of wood, could break). Voilà! The beautiful, dangerous stiletto stepped out.

In truth, we've been standing tall in shoes for centuries. Greek actors put on elevated platforms to raise them above mere mortal status. In 1595, Queen Elizabeth I authorized payment to her shoemaker for a "pair of Spanish leather shoes with high heels and arches." In 15th- and 16th-century Spain and Italy, women wore exquisitely decorated shoes known as chopines, which could stand four inches (ten centimeters) or more off the ground. (An example in Venice's Correr Museum is nearly 20 inches [50 centimeters] high.)

Beautiful? Yes.

Practical? Hardly.

To make the journey from point A to point B, the Venetian lady in chopines often had to be supported by servants. Each step hovered on the edge of disaster.

In one sense, chopines and high heels represent the grand folly of shoe evolution. "It's as if you invented a practical item—say, toilet paper—then embedded it with bits of glass just to make it beautiful," says one curator.

Or, as June Swann, the shoe historian, says, "It's like the circus. You can learn to walk on anything if you put your mind to it."

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