What could be more feminine than the high heel? What could be more ladylike than the way a pair of stilettos or pumps or even wedges can lengthen the leg and swagger the hips and add an element of danger to the ground beneath one’s feet? What other accessory can so neatly evoke the demands made of women as they walk the world every day: to be beautiful, to be amenable, to navigate risk, to bear pain?
But heels, too, both as objects and as symbols, are relative propositions. Even that quintessentially feminine accessory is not quintessentially feminine at all. As Stuart Weitzman, the shoe designer—and the curator of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit Walk This Way: Footwear From the Stuart Weitzman Collection of Historic Shoes—reminded at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic: It used to be men who wore heels.
Recall those infamous portraits of Louis XIV, swathed in the physical rewards of a culture that believed in the divine right of kings, elevated not only by luck, but also by generously stacked heels. They were heels that, as Weitzman suggested, were symbols not only of status—the king stipulated that no heel could be higher than the one that he wore, and that only members of his court could paint their own heels the king’s signature red—but also of gender. Heels, in Europe in the 18th century, given their origins in the riding of horses and the cavalric waging of war, were for a long time the ultimate dudely accessory.