Breda O’Brien: High-heels in Cannes and the gender agenda
‘High heels were once the exclusive province of men’
‘Catherine Deneuve says that in the 1960s, “high-heeled shoes were for women of ill repute. They were reserved for those who were obliged by their profession to live up to a caricature. Do women today really want to make caricatures of themselves?” Yes, apparently.’ Above, Deneuve with and actor Benoit Magimel pose as they arrive for the screening of the film “Standing Tall” (Tête Haute) during the opening ceremony of the 68th Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images
Valerie Richter, a film producer who has had part of her left foot amputated, was stopped four times at the Cannes Film Festival and challenged because she was not wearing high heels. I have to say that I immediately felt vaguely guilty.
As you might guess, I am not a high heels kinda gal. In fact, after I hurt my back a few years ago, for ages I could not wear shoes with heels any higher than an inch.
But this week, I went out and bought a moderately high pair of heels. I thought I was going to be appearing on a television debate, but my trachea and bronchi had other ideas. I was coughing so hard that I thought that the bones in my skull were going to separate.
When I heard about Cannes allegedly imposing a high heels rule, I felt bad about my shoe purchase. But nothing in life is simple.
My genetic heritage from my mother and father blessed me with a long back and short, stubby legs. Two of the opponents I expected to face on television are tall men. I had a notion that I wanted to be as tall as they are.
The coughing spasms which meant I could not take part in the debate may have saved me from becoming a YouTube viral video. Imagine if I had fallen off the stilettos on live TV. Well, I suppose it could only be an improvement on the various reasons why I am infamous in certain circles at the moment.
While it may surprise no-one that I am only a high heels kinda gal when facing tall and highly articulate male opponents, it may surprise people that I read books on gender theory.
That’s the only reason that I know that high heels were once the exclusive province of men. In the opening chapter of their book, Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, Lisa Wade and Myra Marx Ferree talk about the Persian army who defeated the Uzbeks and Ottomans in the 1500s.
Apparently, these soldiers were widely admired throughout Europe as ruthless and effective killers. And they wore high heels, because they fought on horseback, and the heels kept their feet in the stirrups when they rose up to shoot their muskets.
At least according to Wade and Marx Ferree, this led to men all over Europe stumbling around the cobblestone streets in high heels. The aristocracy used them to emphasise the fact that they were too rich to need to do any practical work, because who could do anything involving manual labour in high heels?
By the late 17th century, Louis XIV of France had passed a decree that no-one could wear heels any higher than his. In the Massachusetts colony in the New World, a woman wearing high heels was subject to the same penalties as a witch.
Eventually, most men abandoned high heels, sneering at those who continued to wear them for being so stupid as to wear anything so impractical.
But high heels then transferred to women. Not immediately, and not universally. I discovered from a newspaper interview that the elegant Catherine Deneuve, the French actor, despises teetering along in impossibly high heels.
She deliberately chose mid-height, block-heeled courts for her role as Séverine Serizy, the housewife turned afternoon prostitute in Luis Bunuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour.
Deneuve says that in the 1960s, “high-heeled shoes were for women of ill repute. They were reserved for those who were obliged by their profession to live up to a caricature. Do women today really want to make caricatures of themselves?”
Yes, apparently. Although Deneuve described very high heels as ‘something that comes out of a slightly twisted desire, which, for that matter, makes for a rather twisted way of walking,’ they are madly popular.
The irony is that in Belle de Jour she was still portraying a male fantasy of a woman who longs to be abused and dominated, sensible courts or not.
Really extreme heels were once confined to porn and dodgy sex shops. The publishers of Gail Dines’ book, Pornland –how porn has hijacked our sexuality, chose an image of a black patent ankle boot with a 10-inch spike heel for the cover.
It is one of the contradictions of the age we live in that certain strands of feminism, originally a movement dominated by women in sensible shoes, now hasten to defend the right of women to wear the kind of footwear once only worn by fetishists.
Of course, it is not only shoes. The apparent icon of empowered women everywhere, Beyoncé, recently wore a dress to a premiere that consisted of eleven rhinestones and three metres of net curtains. Or something that looked like that.
It is profoundly ironic that freedom and empowerment for women now apparently consists in actively choosing to wear clothes and shoes that women in previous generations would have rejected as simply pandering to male fantasy.
Hammer toes, screaming soles, but also the occasional feeling of being able to take on the world: all complex consequences of a woman’s right to shoes.