From a symbol of male power to a female bureau

When I brought my newborn home from the hospital, I chose a special outfit for him, which included small leather moccasins. My husband thought the shoes were a bit silly, given that she wouldn’t be able to walk for a year. But that was besides the point: Most of the shoes that carry us through life aren’t made for walking at all.

An upcoming exhibition at the Museum at FIT, located on the New York City campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology, makes my point clear. called Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic, The exhibition shows that our relationship with footwear goes beyond physical, social and psychological functions. The exhibition includes over 300 pairs of shoes, boots and sneakers from MFIT’s permanent collection and spans nearly 500 years of fashion history. But heels, in particular, stand out as a shoe that’s poorly designed for movement, but too important for social acceptance. And the exhibition shows how, for the first time in history, we are rejecting the heel as a symbol of gender or class.

[Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

This boot was not made to run

In some ways, the basic appearance of footwear hasn’t changed much throughout human history. oldest known leather shoe, a moccasin found in Armenia that is 5,500 years old, was made from a single piece of taut cowhide, with laces along the front and back seams. Archaeologists say the shoes were designed to help people walk long distances over rough terrain, protecting feet from the cold, as well as stones and thorny bushes. “It’s amazing that this shoe looks like a modern shoe!” Luxury shoe designer Manolo Blahnik commented National Geographic, When the shoe was first discovered in 2010.

But there’s a big difference between antique shoes and those designed in the last millennium, explains museum director Valerie Steele, the exhibition’s coordinator. Over time, shoemakers have prioritized fashion over fashion, meaning they have stopped designing shoes to be comfortable or to facilitate walking. And this, in turn, has changed how humans stand and walk, as well as how mobile they are.

The most obvious example of this is high heels, which generally make walking easier, but not harder. Heels were first invented in Persia in the 10th century, and they were originally designed for men. “Rich men wore them to give them extra height, and when they rode on the horse, the heel clicked into the stirrup,” Steele says. “But when Persian royals visited the French courts in the 17th century, they brought the trend with them, and soon the high-heeled shoes became widespread among men in European courts.”

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Man’s dark brown shoes with scarlet heel, 1640-1670, Europe; unknown donor [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

Consider the oldest piece in the collection, a man’s shoe from 1640s Europe. It has a red colored heel and cutouts that highlight the top of the foot. The shoe was probably made for a courtier, to make him feel taller and more powerful, and to indicate his social status. And in fact, heels have always been a status symbol, Steele says, because they reflect that the wearer doesn’t need to work hard or get where they need to go.

Steele says that wealthy women in the courts began to wear heeled shoes to reap some of the social benefits they had earned. However, women’s shoes had longer, thinner heels than their male counterparts. Steele says this is possible because people thought they made women’s legs and bodies more feminine. High heels changed a woman’s silhouette, which some men found attractive, so they became associated with women’s sexuality. “Women’s bodies have always been sexually abused, and high heels have become associated with female sexuality,” she says. “This is when men abandoned the heel for more practical flat shoes, but women continued to wear them.”

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Jack Jacobs, Ltd. Black leather boots with red silk lining, 1895–1900, Austria. Gift of the Victoria and Albert Museum [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

Until the 1800s, women of all social classes wore heels. Steele says it’s a myth that heels and corsets were only worn by upper-class women; Even those who were poor, working in the fields or working as maidservants felt pressure to wear heels to show that they too were women. And yet the heel was often a hindrance, making it difficult for them to walk comfortably. A high-heeled boot from 1895 shows it perfectly. It is made by British shoemaker Jack Jacobs, in his Austrian factory, and features a pointed toe and thin heel, which looks quite elegant if not particularly comfortable.

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Gucci Red Patent Leather and Silver Metal Stiletto-Heel Pump, Spring 1998, Italy. Gucci gift. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

heel firmness

In many ways, it’s strange that women’s heels remain in the 21st century, considering how uncomfortable they are. But as the exhibition demonstrates, high heels have dominated women’s fashion over the past century. Some of the most famous shoe designers of our time—Roger Vivier, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Louis Vuitton, and Alexander McQueen—all specialize in the very high heels. a recently acquired pair Maison Martin Margiela is eight inches tall. Another, from Christian Louboutin, combines an excessively high heel with a ballerina pointy upper, making it nearly impossible to walk in.

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Christian Louboutin, Black Patent Leather “Fetish Ballerine” Pumps, 2014, France. The Gift of Christian Louboutin. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

While these are examples of high fashion, heeled shoes were also ubiquitous in everyday footwear throughout the 20th century. And while doctors have pointed out that high heels are not only uncomfortable, but can even permanent damage to the foot, Like women in the 18th and 19th centuries, many women felt pressured to wear them to work and to events. As recently as 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers mandated that women wear heels to work, prompting an employee to petition the British government to include heels in a dress code .

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John Lobb, Man’s Brown Leather Oxford, 1965–1975, England. Gift of Margaret Kaplan. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

Meanwhile, men’s shoes become increasingly More Comfortable. In the 19th century, the oxford, which has a leather upper that can be laced and a sole that provides support, became popular and still remains the standard for men’s formal footwear. And in the 20th century, men began to wear sports shoes off the tennis and basketball courts and into everyday life—and even with formal clothing. Sneakers, which are designed to optimize movement and comfort, are now the most common men’s footwear around the world.

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Balenciaga, Multicolor leather, suede and mesh “Triple S” sneakers, 2018, France. Museum purchase. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

Over the past few decades, men’s and women’s footwear styles have been harmonized, in a radical departure from previous centuries. This is part of a wider change in the years following World War II, with women wearing trousers, suits, jeans and other garments traditionally associated with men. And while there are places where women sometimes feel the need to wear heels, such as formal offices and black-tie events, most choose not to wear them everyday.

Comfort and ergonomics are now major considerations when it comes to footwear, which is why sneakers are now the most popular shoe on the market for both sexes, and Nike is most valuable company in the world. Many of the most popular shoe startups in recent years — such as Allbirds and Birdies — have focused on designing shoes that support the foot and body. And many designers now make high-end versions of sneakers that are both wearable and fashionable, including Balenciaga and Yeezy. “You see women wearing sneakers on the red carpet now,” Steele says. “For decades, heels were the only option.”

But the symbolic power of the heel has not disappeared. Designers continue to create elaborate, fanciful heels, and consumers continue to snap them. Steele says that Western culture has a legend about the magical power of shoes, such as Cinderella’s glass shoe, which still appears in high heels today. “The idea is that the right pair of great heels will change your life,” Steele says. “They will get you a job or help you find a partner. The difference is that wearing heels is now an option, not a social obligation.”

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