All the Heels: Claire Underwood and the Case of the Perma-Stiletto

Her feet must really hurt.

Claire, her husband, and her heels on Air Force One (Netflix)

Allow me, for a moment, to ladysplain: No woman ever—no woman, at least, who has had any kind of say in the matter—has walked around her home in stilettos. No. Woman. Ever. Heels may lengthen the leg and swagger the walk and do all manner of aesthetically pleasing things to the lower limbs of the human body; they achieve all this, however, by creating in their wearer a step-by-step discomfort that builds, depending on the design of the shoe and the length of its wear, from the “very mild” to the “extremely torturous.” Which means that heels—and stilettos, in particular—are public shoes, performative shoes, shoes that are tolerated when one is out in the world and that are shed, immediately, upon one’s return from it. No woman ever—no, but really, No Woman Ever—has gotten home, looked down at her sky-high heels, and thought to herself, “Nah, I’ll just go ahead and keep them on.”

So it is strange and striking that Claire Underwood, who is a human woman if also a fictional one, spends the early episodes of Season 4 of House of Cards permanently clad in stilettos. Claire, now the First Lady of the United States, wears her signature shoes—the shoes that complete her “power dress code”—not just when she is making public appearances, giving speeches and attending international summits and what have you, but also when she is not, technically, “appearing” at all. There’s Claire in the kitchen of the White House residence, hanging out with her husband while teetering in stilettos. There she is visiting her childhood home in Texas—among horse stables and tangled grass, upon soil that is so perilously soft—clad in sky-high heels. There she is nursing her mother in the same impractical footwear. In a scene that finds Claire exhausted from a day of, in every sense, dealing, she returns, finally alone, to the retreat of her lush bedroom, lies down on a chaise, assumes a fetal position, and falls asleep. In her heels.

So, yes. You know how Barbie’s plasticine feet were, until recently, molded to accommodate sky-high footwear? Claire’s feet, House of Cards has suggested, are similar. “Claire only wears stilettos—Manolos and Louboutins, specifically,” Kemal Harris, whom Robin Wright brought on to style Claire for seasons three and four, explained last year. “You will not see her in a wedge or flats. Unless she is running, of course.”

That is, far from being the silly perma-pumps of Jurassic World (and far also from the TV procedurals that make their female detectives run around in heels), intentional on the part of House of Cards’s creators. Claire’s heels—whether round-toed or pointed, whether pump-shaped or ankle-wrapped or t-strapped—have long served as sartorial symbols: The shoes, which at once elevate Claire and constrain her, function as both a defense mechanism and a power play.

In that sense, heels do for Claire what they will for anyone who wears them: They emphasize the thin lines between control and the lack of it. They emphasize aesthetics over practicality. They suggest privilege but also a kind of willful subjugation—an acquiescence to discomfort, to the dangers of walking in heels, to beauty standards that have been largely determined by men. They are shoes fit for a moment in which femininity is both a source of power and a source of its opposite.

So Claire Underwood walks—around the White House, around Washington, around the world—in a very particular way: deliberately, carefully, intentionally. She strides with confidence, but also with caution. Each step, when you are teetering upon the earth perched upon three-inch-high stilts, is precarious. So each step moves Claire forward; each step also threatens danger. She walks the way she does because of who she is, but also because of what she wears.

In that sense, Claire’s shoes bond her with other women—in the show’s universe, and in the broader one—and also, just as readily, separate her from them. Because there Claire is, wearing stilettos while hanging out in her kitchen. When no woman, no woman who has any say in the matter, would ever do that. (Not even a fellow power player: It’s a running gag in House of Cards’s fellow political satire, Veep, that Selina Meyer takes off her heels the moment she’s in private—and then quickly, and extremely grudgingly, puts them on again when someone important approaches.)

But Claire’s new version of the perma-pump—always there, like a patent-leather limb—also marks a change from previous seasons of House of Cards. While Mrs. Underwood’s heels have long served as extensions of her character—and while her show has long emphasized the way shoes make her walk deliberately, and stridently, and slightly menacingly—House of Cards has also, in seasons past, allowed Claire to remove those heels when the occasion warranted. They allowed her, basically, to Selina Meyer herself. Previous episodes of the show depicted a shoe-less Claire so often, in fact, as to lead one redditor (“I have sort of the opposite of a foot fetish so I notice this a lot”) to remark that “the show really likes to add scenes where Claire’s feet are shown, especially after just having taken off her shoes.”

Those scenes have been significant in their rarity. Claire’s moments of bare-footedness—as when, for example, she stretches out on a couch, shoeless, as Frank casually lifts her feet onto his lap—have stood in stark contrast to her sharply tailored, purposeful, and public persona. They have functioned, essentially, as signs of Claire’s humanity. They have served as reminders that Claire has, in addition to a long-running record of assaults against the categorical imperative, feet that are capable of ache. Claire’s shoes, cast away with a relief that will be familiar to any person who has spent a day in heels, have revealed her to be—not just in the worst sense, but in the best—small.

No longer. Now—save for a brief, telling moment toward the end of Season 4, in which Claire removes one shoe to put a Band-Aid on a blistered foot—it’s all stilettos, all the time. Their shared choice in footwear may connect Claire and House of Cards’s fellow lady-politicians (the advisor Leann Harvey, the congresswoman Jackie Sharp, the Underwood primary challenger Heather Dunbar), all of them teetering and tottering and stomping their way through Washington’s intrigues; then again, we see Heather Dunbar, in her off-hours, engaging in a luxury Claire has not apparently enjoyed: wearing practical flats. (We also see Zoe Barnes—the journalist who had an affair with Frank, and whom he asked, tellingly to remove her heels—making a kind of comeback in Frank’s thoughts in Season 4.)

If Claire’s heels are a form of armor, the new episodes of House of Cards seem to be suggesting that they are armor that cannot, at this point, be fully removed. The “sheath” and the “she” have merged, perhaps inextricably. Even when Claire is home, even when she is alone, even when she occupies the spaces that would seem to allow her to be at her most real and soft and unguarded … there she is, clad and covered in spiky-heeled Louboutins. The shoes that for most women suggest choice—the high heel that can be donned and discarded at will, the public stiletto that need not be a private one—suggest, for Claire, a kind of imprisonment. Here is a woman who has sacrificed everything she has—her family, her own ambitions, her soul—for power. And here is a woman who has spent House of Cards coming to terms with a bitter irony: that the power she has achieved has belonged not officially to her, but to her husband. Which makes Claire’s situation—the result of murders and mayhem and assorted soap operatics—both totally unique and, in its fuzzy way, familiar. Here is a woman who, even when she steps forward, is restrained.