How High Heels Became a Feminist Issue at Cannes

Outrage ensued after a group of women wearing flat shoes was turned away from a Cannes red carpet. Why is the high heel such a charged piece of clothing?

Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

Last year’s Golden Globes saw British actress Emma Thompson storm the stage barefoot, her Christian Louboutin stilettos in one hand and a dirty martini in the other.

She flashed Louboutin’s trademark red-lacquered soles at an amused audience, clutching her heels indignantly. “My blood,” she slurred, then lobbed the shoes overhead before announcing the award for best screenplay.

Thompson’s antics provoked genuine laughter—the rarest of things at Hollywood awards shows—along with cheers from her female comrades who had stuffed their feet into precipitously high heels that night. They roared in their seats, wiggling their numb toes.

But her bare feet would be met with a wagging finger—how gauche!—at the Cannes Film Festival, where several fiftysomething women were turned away for wearing flats at the red-carpet premiere of Carol, a lesbian love story.

The festival may love lesbianism, but apparently it draws the line at middle-aged women flocking to a lesbian film in flats.

Subsequently, Cannes has been transformed into this week’s feminist battleground, where women hobble down the red carpet on vertiginous heels to please the patriarchy.

The Internet sparked into predictable outrage—film festival forces women to bind their feet!—and the stars began speaking out.

Actress Emily Blunt registered contempt for Cannes’ alleged heel mandate and a personal bias against the style. “We shouldn’t wear high heels anyway,” she said at a press conference before the premiere of her latest film, Sicario—at the after-party she reportedly changed into flats.

Still others reported footwear confrontations with overzealous security guards, who are enforcing a strict interpretation of the festival’s “black tie” dress code.

There are many absurdities to the Cannes rule. After all, fashion is all about breaking the rules, not bending to them—so why the insistence on heels? And since when does the height of your shoe dictate entry to an event at which you’re already a VIP?

Valerie Richter, a film producer and scriptwriter, said festival officials have policed her flat footwear on four separate occasions this year. She stood her ground, but stopped short of making them count the four toes on her mangled left foot.

“We are all working women who walk up and down the streets of Cannes all day doing business,” she told The Telegraph. “They cannot force us to wear heels.”

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The controversy at Cannes reflects a longstanding debate about feminism and high heels.

Indeed, the high heel—as the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels exhibition revealed—is fraught with historical baggage.

From Chinese women teetering on foot-binding wedges to Marilyn Monroe wiggling in her stilettos, high heels have symbolized femininity, sex, power, and submission—sometimes all at once.

They can never be neutral. Women who wear them know this, whether they do so to express their own feelings of power and control or to look and feel sexy.

Our managing editor wears them to work regularly because they make her feel taller and emboldened. “I’m serious enough as is, so I like that heels can be playful,” she says.

Still some feminists insist women can’t be taken seriously in four-inch platforms. Writing in the anthology Fifty Shades of Feminism, Sandi Toksvig, the Danish writer and actress, argues that women “will never meet men on an equal footing … while they literally can’t stand up for themselves.”

A friend who works at Google says she wears heels on dates and on interviews, but would feel silly traipsing around the office, where sneakers prevail. “I’d stick out like a sore thumb,” she tells me. “No one wears them here.”

In a 2013 interview, Sarah Jessica Parker admitted that running in heels on the set of Sex and the City destroyed her feet. “I worked 18-hour days and never took them off,” she said. “I wore beautiful shoes, some made better than others, and never complained.” And Parker's costar, Kristin Davis (Charlotte), has said she feels guilty for the show’s glamorization of high heels.

If there is a high-heel mandate at Cannes, plenty of stars have broken it over the years.

Elizabeth Olsen wore flat sandals to the 2011 festival premiere of Martha Marcy May Marlene. “By the end of the night, when I’m wearing heels at events, my feet feel like they’re sitting in pools of blood,” she later told Asos magazine.

Even those blessed with the daintiest of feet, the highest of arches, could surely relate. Most of us who have ever spent an intoxicated evening wobbling around on high heels can recall waking up the next day to an apparent murder scene at the foot of the bed.

Women shouldn’t be obliged to wear high heels anywhere, including at Cannes. And so to face down those overzealous officials (comfortable in their manly flat black dress shoes) we need just a few more bold statements of red carpet rebellion—Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett, get your softest slippers out and start a revolution.