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The Stiletto Story
Text by Mamta Badkar
Published: Volume 16, Issue 6, June, 2008
High heels and toe cleavage brought about a shoe renaissance that began nearly four centuries ago. From the protective chopines worn by Venetian courtesans to the mood-altering stilettos strutted by today’s power women and fashionistas, the liaison dangereuse between women and their beloved heels continues apace. Mamta Badkar gets a foot in the door by tracing the fascinating history of this elevated shoe form

Shoes like these shouldn’t be locked in a closet. They should be living a life of scandal, and passion,” exclaims Cameron Diaz petulantly in the 2005 chick-flick In Her Shoes, as she surveys her sister’s cupboard chock-a-block with exotic shoes. Toni Colette, every bit the plain-Jane sister, watches her squeeze into a pair of stilettos smugger than Cinderella at the sight of her glass slipper and defensively retorts; “I get something out of them! When I feel bad, I like to treat myself. Clothes never look any good, food just makes me fatter but shoes always fit.” Nothing could be truer than that silver screen axiom.

Women everywhere admit to buying shoes, especially heels, to make themselves feel good. While shopping for clothes is a major stress buster for most, pacing about in Manolos is nothing short of therapeutic. The stiletto factor is solely responsible for elongating stubby legs, accentuating calves, undulating hips and arching the foot in a manner that is said to resemble a woman’s foot in the throes of passion. Like Lola, the flashy transvestite in Kinky Boots says, ‘Look to the heel young man, the sex is in the heel.’ No surprise then that stilettos have palpably managed to earn a fetishistic appeal in the heads of most men besides being become the preferred choice for preening women on first dates.

To truly appreciate stilettos though, we need to trace their vertiginous history all the way back to the Renaissance, when high heels first propped up in the fashionable circles. The Holy Grail of shoes possibly had its genesis in chopines, high-heel platforms made famous by Venetian aristocrats and courtesans. Originally intended to protect delicate sandals and opulent dresses, they soon became a symbol of wealth and status. These shoes which peaked at 20 inches were so cumbersome that women who donned them often needed aides to support them. But a suffragette of sorts put an end to this unwieldy signifier of status.

Just imagine plain-Jane, pocket-sized, Catherine de Medici in the 16th century trying to win over Henry II, future king of France. To allay her insecurity she plumps up her quotidian shoes with a svelte heel. As she sashays down the aisle on her wedding day, she captures the human imagination with her grace, poise and a little oomph. Not to be outdone, some 100 years later, King Louis XIV starts donning red heels that are permissible only to nobility. Today, Christian Louboutin’s trademark red soled shoes have become a status symbol in their own right. High heels that became synonymous with aristocracy had to be stowed away during the French revolution though, when they became a one-way ticket to the guillotine. As flat-soled shoes stood firm ground right till the end of the world wars, artistes continued to hammer away, working towards moulding one of 20th century’s greatest inventions.

While the paternity of the stiletto remains uncertain, Roger Vivier and Salvatore Ferragamo are usually credited with inventing the stiletto heel. Ferragamo, shoe-maker to the stars, made some of the most iconic shoes of the last century for everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Eva Peron. His grey suede, wooden and metal heel covered in crocodile was made famous by Monroe in Some Like It Hot. Stefania Ricci, director of the Salvatore Ferragamo museum, says “He studied human anatomy to learn how to create the most comfortable shoes by distributing body weight over the arch of the foot. He patented an internal support made of steel, the shank, which made them lightweight but strong.”

With the creation of Manolo Blahnik’s ‘Needle’, stilettos were here to stay. Crafted from silk brocades, lace, rhinestones, fur, sequins, beads and the like, his shoes have become so iconic, they’re often likened to a character on sitcoms like Sex and the City. It’s hard to forget Carrie Bradshaw negotiating with her mugger, “Please sir, you can take my Fendi baguette, my ring and my watch, but don’t take my Manolos.” Tamara Mellon, founder and president of Jimmy Choo, stresses the importance of celebrity in leaving a Choo footprint. “Stilettos are a woman’s best kept secret as they miraculously make you look toned.… These shows promote women wearing heels as a glamorous fashion statement no matter what time of day. Personally, I wear 115 mm heels all day long.” To celebrate these modern mar- vels, Choo has got its slimmest stiletto till date, the Ciggy; interpreted in the classic pump, Mary Janes and high fashion catwalk styles and is launching them in its Autumn Winter ’08 collection. But it’s the eponymous Mondrian heel, inspired by the minimalist Dutch painters’ linear, architectural shapes, that’s kicking up a storm now.

As for Indian stiletto history, padukas (toe-knob sandals) mojris and kolhapuris have been renowned for a while but it’s only in recent years that India has made its mark on high heels. Louboutin’s creations have been inspired by Indian mythology and their celebration of colour. He even designed a shoe using a gold bracelet that resembled, in his words, ‘Lord Arjuna sitting on a bird, holding on to its claws’. Avant-garde designer Patrick Cox admits to treading a fine line between the refined and plain gaudy but revels in the loud and flashy influence of Bollywood in his works. Who knows, maybe some day soon Indian couturiers will take notice and get on board the high-heel bandwagon too.

High Five
The most desirable heels of them all

  • Coco Chanel’s souliers made famous by fashionistas like Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Fonda had their inspiration in men’s leisure shoes. It was on a cruise aboard the Duke of Westminister’s yacht that she first noticed that yachtsmen’s shoes had black leather toes to keep stains from showing. She adapted these to create one of the most iconic shoes of modern times, the two-tone shoe. The beige in the ultra-feminine design elongates the leg, while the slightly squared, black toe shortens the foot.
  • Christian Louboutin’s trademark red-soled shoes are reminiscent of King Louis XIV red heels. A symbol of aristocracy, only courtiers were allowed to don the crimson creations and none could be higher than the kings. Louboutin’s maverick designs have been made famous by icons everywhere, none more so than Kylie Minogue who danced atop a piano for her 2 Hearts video.
  • Salvatore Ferragamo’s exquisite Court Shoe covered in red Swarovski rhinestone was created for Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s. It was so iconic that Ferragamo reclaimed it at an auction of Monroe’s personal effects in New York.
  • Often called the Fabergé of footwear, Roger Vivier is best known for creating the curved, comma heel. So loved are his creations that he crafted a pair of heels encrusted with garnets and gold curving strands of leather that carried Queen Elizabeth II during her coronation.
  • Manolo Blahnik’s sultry, blood-red patent leather camparis with a strap were crafted in 1994 and made cult history after they were featured on Sex and The City. Blahnik’s creations are so popular that even Marge Simpson sported a pair of mules on The Simpsons back in 1991.

Shoes in Art
Stilettos have an arty side, too

  • Vittore Carpaccio’s Two Venetian Ladies (c. 1490) was one of the first paintings to depict chopines. Seen on the left of the painting, the chopines have evoked much debate about the status of the women. Early descriptions suggest they were courtesans while modern theorists believe they belong to a prominent Venetian family.
  • Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) invited public censure with its portrayal of a demi-monde reclining on a bed wearing nothing but slender heeled sandals. The sandals reiterate her undress while her cold, uneven stare confronts viewers and asserts her sexuality. Some 14 years later, he painted another bawd Nana (1877) perched atop high heels and powdering her face in front of a looking glass, a work which was rejected outright by the Salon.
  • Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s With Red Streetwalker originally painted in 1914 and modified in 1925 is an expressionistic work that focuses on the claustrophobia and corruption of cities like Berlin. And while others roam about with vacuous, mask-like faces, the red cocotte is at the centre of the decadence. With her scarlet coat and high heels, indicative of her standing, these lofty shoes came to be associated with femme fatales once again.
  • George Barbier’s art-deco style illustrations (1911 - 1932) were renowned for their renderingof the roaring 20s and appeared in exclusive publications like La Gazette du Bon Ton which targeted the elite fashion circles of Paris. His flamboyant costumes, long ostrich feathers, ornate jewellery and willowy heels were always set against vignettes of theatre, travel or soirées. Stilettos were the obvious next step.
  • Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes (1980 – 1981) signaled a return to one of his most famous and successful leitmotifs, the shoe. Images of women’s shoe candy first popped into his works in the 1950s when magazines paid him a fixed sum for each drawing of a shoe. And when stilettos became all the rage, he started setting these many hued shoes against a black background and sprinkling the surface with ‘diamond dust’. The focus on shoes which adorn the lowest part of our bodies drew obvious parallels with the high-low dichotomy of pop art itself, while also invoking its fetishistic glory.

Sign of the Times
Stiletto moments in popular culture

  • It’s hard to forget Marilyn Monroe in her white heels, her dress lifted up from a draft that came from the subway grate on which she stood while filming The Seven Year Itch. This infamous scene has been blamed for the meltdown of her marriage to baseball pro Joe DiMaggio.
  • The back jacket of Cyndi Lauper’s album She’s So Unsual features Cindy’s feet bearing heels with Van Gogh’s Starry Night on the sole of her shoes. This iconic album with its eccentric, kitschy look, made it to VH1’s 50 Greatest Album Covers.
  • While most people remember Anita Ekberg’s controversial romp in the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, one of the more memorable scenes in the movie involved Anita Ekberg drinking champagne from a stiletto.
  • David Bowie in the ’70s and John Travolta in the ’80s brought back platform heels for men with their stage performances and movies like Saturday Night Live.

So Quirky!
Stilettos off the beaten heel

  • “Almost every woman is not only conscious of her feet, but sex conscious about them,” said Andre Perugia, pioneer of some of the highest fetish shoes for patrons like French singer Mistinguett. These heels that epitomised eroticism often teetered well over five inches.
  • It's ironic that Salvatore Ferragamo’s Calypso sling-back sandal of 1955 drew inspiration for its unorthodox cage heel from an object traditionally used to confine.
  • Turkish shoemaker Mehmet Kurdash, established Gina shoes, named after his favourite actress Gina Lollobrigida, in 1954. His quirkier designs included the Gina wheel stiletto of 1962 which aimed at protecting parquet floors from steel-tipped stilettos.
  • Bizarre as it may seem, many shoe designers have incorporated fish motifs in their creations. Andre Perugia created a fish pump in 1931, fish-scales and all as a tribute to cubist painter Georges Braque. Christian Louboutin explored his aversion to fish when he created a high heel shoe with a veneer that resembled mackerel scales.

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