If Heels Could Kill

This season's shoes have grown dangerously tall. Renata Espinosa is on the case.

For those with the word “shoes” tagged on their personalized Google News pages, last week was a banner-headline day: an attention-grabbing photo surfaced of Madonna frolicking in a pair of subversive-looking “gun heels” from the latest Chanel Resort collection (designed by Karl Lagerfeld and legendary French shoemaker Laurence Dacade) at the New York premiere of her new film, Filth and Wisdom. The pumps were so eye-catching, in fact, that they managed to upstage Madge’s directorial debut by raising controversy with some British anti-gun activists—but what better to take the Material Girl down than a pair of shoes?

For the fashion sociologists amongst us, Madonna’s shoes were a bit on-the-nose in terms of their “wickedness.” But they’ve given us a great excuse to discuss some seriously wicked shoes that trotted down the Spring ’09 runways a few weeks ago in a similar are-they-shoes-or-art? vein.

So what’s the attraction to these extreme, sometimes devilish-looking heels, especially when economic times are so tight and pragmatism should be winning out? Why must we inject our feet with Botox, risk sprained ankles and max out our credit cards in the name of adorning our stumps when the world is at war, the budgets are tightening, we’re heading for ecological disasters, and so forth?

Maybe future historians will view it as an accidental, but for now, these wild, precarious heels are an appropriate reflection of unstable economic times—we’re as unsteady as our skyscraper stilettos.

As certain fashion insiders argue, now is the perfect time for shoes like these to appear. There will always be fashion and its unending pursuit of fantasy, even in dark years. The same way some people go to movies to escape, there are those who binge on boots. Also, accessories typically become the go-to shopping item when purse strings tighten; shoes can be worn with everything, after all.

“The shoe has become the ‘it’ accessory to mix up wardrobes,” said Ken Downing, Senior VP and Fashion Director of Neiman Marcus. “I think every customer will respond to the economic situation differently. There is always a customer who is a huge fashion enthusiast looking for a statement-making shoe.”

Maybe future historians will view it as an accidental, but for now, these wild, dangerous heels are an appropriate reflection of unstable economic times—we’re as unsteady as our skyscraper stilettos. Or, conversely, a pair of strong-statement heels simply makes us feel more empowered. If we can walk on cobblestones in these babies, we can get through anything.

“Nothing is worse than walking down the street with an empty bank account, oppressive weather, packed subways while wearing flat, schlumpy, sensible shoes,” said Sarah Maher, a New York-based fashion editor. “It is psychologically uplifting to stand tall in high-rise kicks, no matter how painful. Look at people in obviously new heels walking past windows catching a glimpse of themselves—they love it, it makes them feel good, even if they've lost their stocks and shouldn't have put $800 shoes on their Amex.”

Beyond the psychological underpinnings, there are also pure design reasons for the fanciful footwear. Fashion has been having an architectural moment, just as it did in the eighties—instead of clothes following the body, the body is defined by the clothing. Shoulders are terraces, legs are spires in reverse and the shoes are our gargoyles. We are transformed into Gothic cathedrals with a pulse.

“There was an eighties attitude on many runways, with the bandage-bondage dress” said Downing. “Many of the shoes were wrapped in elastic and they have a little bit of a dominatrix sexuality to them.” But it’s not all S&M for spring; there were plenty of flouncy frocks and light, ethereal ruffles as well. “The idea of a shoe that has a bit more aggression to it is a nice counterbalance,” said Downing. The masochistic pumps this year are the ego to our clothing’s id— and when things get rough, we are going to need to be armed with both.

And for the very paranoid (about their ankle health): Often times—most times—what we see on the runway is just an heightened, limit-pushing expression of what actually ends up in stores, Downing reminds us. “Extreme shoes will be brought down and modified for, dare we say it, mere mortals.”