Burberry's Spring 2011 fashion show in London last month started steadily enough: Sarah Jessica Parker and Serena Williams squeezed into the front row, motorcycle jackets blanketed the runway, and the crowd went wild. Seemingly, everything proceeded without a hitch—until the final model, a coltish 16-year-old named Nina Porter, took her final spin. Porter wound up flat on her face in a spill that recalled Naomi Campbell's infamous wipeout on the Vivienne Westwood runway in 1993. "Regardless of how ridiculous, or ill fitting, the shoes a model has been given to wear, if she falls it can spell the end of her career," wrote The Daily Mail the day after the Burberry show.
That same week, Daphne Guinness—the fashion icon famous for braving some of couture's most impossible designs—visited St. Paul's Cathedral for Alexander McQueen's memorial service in towering platforms from his Autumn/ Winter 2009 collection. Although Guinness once told The Daily Beast that McQueen's Armadillo heels were surprisingly easy to walk in, she lost her balance on the cobblestones of the churchyard—and was cast into a sea of fans.
This season, fashion's sky-scraping heels have reached new heights. Take, for example, Lady Gaga's personal favorites: Noritaka Tatehana's 9.1-inch "Night Makers." All platform and no heel, the shoe challenges the laws of physics by throwing the body forward onto the ball of the foot. "The structure it is kind of confidential," Tatehana said of his designs in an email to The Daily Beast. "But I suppose I could say they're made based along natural structure that utilizes the human body's character."
Tatehana's design, and other pieces of hoof architecture—such as McQueen's Armadillos, Guo Pei's geisha-girl platforms, and Olivier Theyskens' 11-inch heelless shoes for Nina Ricci—have set the bar high for the rest of the industry. "Even though the Armadillo was hard to wear, it has created a look and had a trickle-down effect," said one editor at a top fashion magazine. "Crazy heel heights are happening right now. And I don't see [them] coming down."
And they're not just on runways and in magazine editorials—average women are doubling down on "F-Me" heels, as well. "Some of the highest heels yet are what we're seeing this year," said Lonnie Bishop, who has been the Manolo Blahnik specialist at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills since 1992. "And they're selling faster than anything else on the floor."
Gallery: The 25 Highest Heels
But while the higher-than-ever aesthetic now prevails, it's not necessarily at the expense of stability. It's all about the pitch—the ratio between the heel and the platform—which has enabled designers this season to reach new heights while maintaining walkability. "I don't think a woman could wear a five-inch heel without a platform," says Matthew Dairman, a surgeon and spokesman for the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. "Unless you happen to be a stripper—and well-trained one—at 10- to 15-minute intervals."
This fall, some designers have negotiated the demand for high-drama with stability. Giuseppe Zanotti's Amber boot, for example, towers eight inches high with a six-inch heel and two-inch platform. "It's not heavy and resembles the prow of a ship," Zanotti told The Daily Beast in an email. "Stilettos are very sexy but often they're not so steady and sometimes women have an insecure walk. Platforms, instead, are very steady, more aggressive, and give women great confidence."
Confidence, sure, but these new footwear heights may spell bad news for health, as doctors are racing to catch up to fashion. "The higher heels you wear, the more wear and tear it's going to cause on the soles of your feet," says Dr. Garo Kassabian of Lift MD Aesthetics in Beverly Hills, who recently made headlines for injecting Kim Kardashian with Botox on an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Doctors say that towering heels can strain the Achilles tendon, causing injuries such as Metatarsalgia (inflammation of the ball of the foot) and Morton's neuroma (which occurs when nerves get pinched between the third and fourth toes). They can exacerbate bunions, cause arthritis in the knees, and some even believe high heels can cause headaches. According to one orthopedic surgeon, every heel over three inches puts seven times the body's weight in pressure on the balls of the feet.
The trauma of high heels has resulted in the birth of the aesthetic podiatry industry, which both enables women to wear higher heels and treats them for heel-related injuries. "Fashion has gotten so high that women are going to extremes to take relief," says orthopedic surgeon and shoe designer Taryn Rose. And that relief can come in extreme forms—such as the Cinderella Procedure, in which a foot can be thinned out to fit into a Manolo Blahnik or toe-shortening, which involves cutting the bone at the joint. Because heels cause the cushions in the balls of the feet to erode, a more common procedure, " Pillows for Your Feet," involves the injection of hyaluronic acids, such as Restylane and other face-fillers, into the soles. But according to doctors, the procedure's long-term effects are still unknown.
While there will always be envelope-pushers when it comes to fashion, one answer to dangerous heels are shorter options with the same amount of oompf. The American Podiatric Medical Association states that foot problems generally occur in heels over two inches, and recommends the following ideal shoe for women: "A walking shoe with laces (not a slip-on), a polymerized composition sole, and a relatively wider heel with a rigid and padded heel counter, no more than three-quarters of an inch in height." Though that style doesn't sound like it will be hitting the runway any time soon, there may be a silver-lining ahead. As Vogue.com's Creative Director Candy Pratts Price puts it: "You can still have it low with flourishes. You don't have to go around in 105 [millimeters] to get high fashion."
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.