Feet of Engineering

Roman: This is 99 % Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

If you hear these footsteps, you can get some idea about who is walking towards you. It’s probably a woman, but it doesn’t have to be. She can be a supermodel, a CEO, a drag queen, a bridesmaid, just to name a few. As a fashion object and symbol, the high heel is weighted with meaning.

Avery: It is also weighted with the wearer’s entire body weight. The high-heeled shoe might be one of the only designs that is physically painful and yet somehow persists.

Roman: Avery Trufelman doesn’t tend to wear heels.

Avery: I really like the way heels look and I’ve tried wearing them, but I just cannot do it. So, I talked to someone who actually wears them every day.

Audie: I have a standing desk, so I’m even a bigger dummy, right? Like, I’m in this heels all day and standing.

Avery: When Audie does her job, you can’t even tell she’s doing it in heels.

Audie: This is all things considered from NPR news, I’m Audie Cornish.

Roman: Believe it or not, we radio folk actually bother to get dressed, sometimes.

Avery: For Audie Cornish, like a lot of professionals, high heels are strictly for the office. Commuting to work, it’s flats. After work, back in flats.

Audie: Because it is impossible I feel like, to find a shoe that is a high heel that’s really gorgeous and fundamentally comfortable.

Avery: She’s tried high heels that claim to use comfort technology.

Audie: But it’s like a 3 1/2-inch, 4-inch pump, like, it is only going to be so comfortable. They are shoes that are wearable and I can wear them for hours, but I wouldn’t call it comfortable, right? It’s just possible.

Avery: She does not like to complain.

Audie: You do it to yourself, right? So,it’s dumb to walk around being like, “These heels are…” because that’s basically like saying I failed at this look.

Roman: But people have been failing at this look for a very long time.

Elizabeth Semmelhack: I can’t tell when the heel was actually invented. I think that history is long buried and dates back centuries and centuries and centuries in the near East.

Avery: Elizabeth Semmelhack curates a very specialized museum in Toronto.

Elizabeth: I’m Elizabeth Semmelhack and I’m the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum.

Avery: I’ve got to ask, why isn’t it the shoeseum?

Elizabeth: I don’t know. You are the first to ask me that question.

Roman: The collection at the Bata Shoe Museum, or shoeseum includes a lot of different kinds of footwear, but high heels are the focus of Elizabeth Semmelhack’s research and the subject of her book, Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe.

Avery: And that history, as it turns out, started with men.

Elizabeth: Many horseback riding cultures wore heels on their boots and on their shoes for riding.

Roman: Heels help you stay in the stirrups, which is why cowboy boots have heels.

Avery: As early as the 10th century, the Persian cavalry was wearing inch high, high heels. Persia had a really big, really talented mounted military, so this spread the trend.

Elizabeth: And so, European men have heels added to their riding boots. It’s associated with upper class practice because having horses, keeping horses is like a sports car. It seems that from there, the men wore them first. Within a short order, upper class women added heels to their own outfits, and then heels become a form of upper and middle class dress throughout the seventeenth century. But it really wasn’t yet a strong signifier of gender.

Roman: In all of those paintings of Louis XIV in his little kitten heels, he was dressing like the pillar of a normative, aristocratic masculinity he is, nothing effeminate about him at that time.

Avery: But then, heels started to get gendered in their designs. Men’s heels grew broad and sturdy, and women’s became tapered and decorative. Finally, men deemed them impractical and in the 18th century, the high heel is strictly a lady shoe.

Elizabeth: And something really interesting happens at the end of the 18th century which is the French Revolution. When the French Revolution happens, high heels, although they were very much associated with femininity, they were also very much associated with aristocratic femininity.

Roman: Post French revolution aristocracy and frivolity are out of vogue.

Avery: And then heels stay out of style for a really, really long time until, and this is Semmelhack’s theory, the invention of the camera. Because with photography came pornography, and with the rise of pornography came the rise of the heel.

Roman: Pornography embraced high, thin heels before fashion did because heels worked great when you don’t have to move and you’re just posing for a few minutes.

Avery: It’s around this time when heels become sex charged.

Elizabeth: The pin ups that are in men’s barracks during World War II almost always have high heels on them. When the war is over and the men returned home, that is when the stiletto is invented because the stiletto brings fashion into alignment with men’s erotica.

Avery: As heels made their way out of photography and onto the street and into the office, there arose the engineering challenge of trying to make this fundamentally uncomfortable thing, comfortable.

Elizabeth: I think the physics of putting the weight of a woman’s body basically on the balls of her feet is a lot of pressure to try to mitigate.

Avery: So, people try to find ways around the design. There are foldable flat shoes that you can take with you when you just can’t take the pain of a high heel anymore. But if you want to go the whole nine yards or nine hours in pumps, YouTube is full of hacks and tips and tricks.

Female 1: Put the heel liner in and it will prevent your shoe from flapping off. You know what I mean?

Avery: MacGyver type fixes for the shoe.

Female 2: All you need is felt and a glue stick and some glue and some scissors and a glue gun. Remember guys, do not burn yourself.

Avery: MacGyver type fixes for the foot.

Female 3: All you have to do is tape together your third and your fourth toe. I promise this works.

Avery: Classes and tutorials for learning how to walk in heels.

Female 4: Practice, practice, practice. And I don’t want you girls, to be afraid about going up and down the stairs in heels. It’s actually fairly easy.

Avery: In the most extreme cases, people have gotten surgeries to shorten their pinky toes, deaden their nerves, or shoot Botox into their feet, all to circumvent the pain of a high heel.

Female 5: You start to feel it at the very ball of your foot. The ball of your foot has all the nerves, and then they’ll start to rub on your heels and rub on the sides, and then suddenly you step down and it is going to be a shooting, stabbing pain. After that pain, you’ll go numb.

Avery: Meet the twins.

Emily: I’m Emily Liang. I’m three minutes older.

Jessica: I’m Jessica Liang.

Emily: We have a vintage inspired modern, comfort wedding shoe line.

Roman: So that people, who are getting married, don’t have numb feet, or aching legs, or crooked posture or a nerve damage.

Jessica: Because it’s not just your foot pain. It’s your ankle pain, it shortens your calves, it ruins your posture.

Avery: Not to mention bunions, and hammer toe, and Haglund’s deformity.

Roman: Google these if you want to, but do not click image search. Some things you just can’t unsee.

Avery: The Liang twins design hacks into the shoe and borrowed elements from other kinds of footwear.

Jessica: When we actually first started, we frankensteined the most comfortable aspects of different shoes.

Avery: They started with the toe box, which is basically the very front of the shoe where the toes are. They took the toe box from a salsa dancer’s high heel, which tends to be roomier.

Emily: Just to give your foot enough room to be able to swell as you’re standing. Every foot will swell throughout the day.

Avery: The whole shoe is really padded and cushioned. And like running shoes, they have arched support built right in.

Roman: They’re not stilettos. For balance purposes, the Liangs made the heel thick where it meets the foot. But for aesthetics, the sturdy heel tapers to a finer point where it meets the floor.

Jessica: You don’t want to look at the shoe and think it’s a comfort shoe.

Roman: Although comfort shoe is relative.

Jessica: We guarantee our shoes are going to be at least an hour more comfortable than all your other shoes.

Avery: For the Liang twins, even the most comfortable high heels still have a time limit. But Martha Davis begs to differ.

Martha: I don’t have that same feeling. I wear these shoes 12 hours a day, every day. And I know quite a few women who do the same. I have never had any problems with them.

Roman: Although Martha Davis is talking about shoes that she made.

Martha: My name is Martha Davis. I am an industrial designer and I’ve been working in the footwear industry for the last eight years.

Roman: You may be familiar with her industrial design work. Martha Davis designed the round, compact case for the pill. Like the Liang twins, Davis was wearing high heels before she started designing them. She couldn’t find a a high-heeled shoe that looked good and didn’t cause pain.

Avery: Davis went to Milan to study a process of shoe-making called the Lunati method, which emphasizes measurement and proportionality. And her takeaway is this:

Martha: A heel can be really successful as long as the shoe fits properly. So, it’s not a question of the height. It’s a question of the fit.

Avery: There’s one critical point where the fit really matters.

Martha: It’s called the calzata. They called it the fitting point. That’s the number one critical spot.

Avery: If you look down at your feet, it’s kind of right before your foot becomes your toes. So, in terms of girth, it’s the widest part of your foot. You have to secure that spot and make sure it’s not too loose or too tight.

Roman: The calzata is not the only significant spot. The toe box could be too shallow and the pitch of the heel could be too steep or not steep enough. There are a number of factors, but it’s most important to keep the calzata in proportion to the other numbers for comfort and security.

Avery: The Lunati method allows Martha to play around with sculptural forms and hard materials like steel and gnarled wood with hardly any padding.

Roman: Though she keeps her shoes relatively low.

Avery: But a quote, unquote, low heel is nothing to scoff at. I wore three-inch heels this week just to try it and my feet are killing me.

Roman: So, why bother?

Avery: Well, it’s complicated. I asked Audie Cornish this question too. The same twinge that makes me feel awkward about discussing high heels is the same thing that makes me think like, “Why do I shave my legs?” You know what I mean? It’s like my whole feminism 101 collegiate self like railing at me from the past to being like, “You’ve sold out in every way possible.” But there is something to be said for a well-made high heel shoe that makes your calves look amazing, and puts that inappropriate, probably, sexy arch in your back. I like that feeling. The heel is so tied up in webs of gender and sex and power. Look, I can’t speak for everyone, but when it comes to the appeal of the heel, it’s actually not very complex psychology. Heels affect the way you move through the world. They change your walk. They make you push your shoulders back, hold your head up, and swing your hips. They make you taller. But it’s not really about that, I mean, I am already pretty tall. Actually, in general, height is not as big factor as you would think.

Elizabeth: People will often say to me, “Well, women wear high heels today because they want to be as tall as men.”

Roman: Elizabeth Semmelhack again.

Elizabeth: I can’t agree with that. I do understand that reasoning, but there are many, many, many men who would equally benefit from increased height. And so, why are they ignoring the potential power of the high heel.

Roman: But it wasn’t too long ago when heels for guys were kind of cool. Think of the opening scene of Saturday Night Fever. John Travolta is walking through the streets of New York and he’s strutting around in high-heeled boots. The camera is focused on his shoes. It puts an undeniable swagger in his step.

Elizabeth: Men tried high heels in the 70s and why didn’t it stick?

Avery: To condense Elizabeth Semmelhack’s research, men’s heels in the 70s were too tied up in sub-culture.

Elizabeth: The exoticizing elements kept it on the fringe.

Avery: And so the men’s chunky platform went out of style when power dressing of the 1980s came along. Men wearing suits and ties, women wearing suits and heels, and they still are.

Elizabeth: The high heel could come to mean simply “professional power” or it could come to be that female professionals are the new power brokers. But then, I would not be surprised if that happens that men would be as eager to wear high heels as women.

Roman: Okay, but only if they can design comfortable ones.

99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman with Sam Greenspan, Katie Mingle and me Roman Mars. We are a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced at the offices of Arcsine. We walk around with paint cans, strutting to (laughs) in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

  1. miss pooslie

    i have NEVER understood why people wear heels. the worst part is that almost all dress shoes are high heels (or are matronly/ugly). Ballet flats were a thing for a couple of years but they are almost as bad since they have zero support.

    1. Jiminy

      I have feet. They provide all the support I need. I stand almost all day at work, either barefoot or something equivalent (currently a pair of FiveFingers because barefoot is a bit cold in winter). People don’t need artificial support in their footwear, they need to learn to stand properly and let their body do what it would do naturally if they hadn’t spent a lifetime teaching it the wrong things by wearing shoes.

  2. Julia

    The reason the Canadian shoe museum is called the Bata Shoe Museum is because it was established by Tomas Bata, the Czech expatriate owner of the Bata Shoe company (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bata_Shoes). Bata (pronounced “bah-tya”) founded his company in Zlin, Czechoslovakia but escaped to Canada when the Nazis invaded in 1938. The factory complex was taken over by the Nazis who operated it through the war. But the shoe company resumed its original function after the war and continues to operate worldwide. The former headquarters in Zlin include a smaller shoe museum as well as several historic buildings, Bata’s “elevator office” and a film school and studio. I know all this because my father worked at the Bata film studio, also escaping (to the US) just before the Nazi invasion!

  3. Daphne

    One note: The podcast says that heels were first used as a part of riding boots because “heels help you stay in the stirrups, which is why cowboy boots have heels.” In fact the opposite is the case. Heels PREVENT your foot from staying in the stirrup so that you are not dragged if you fall off. The idea is the heel is a stopper that prevents your foot from going all the way through a stirrup. If you can avoid getting stuck in the stirrup you and the horse will part ways as quickly and safely as possible.

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