On-trend shoes: high fashion or a step too far

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

27 March 2010

According to shoeblog.com, Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2010 runway collection “was a statement about the future of our world”. However the shoes in the collection – sky high platforms which restrict and distort movement – are distinctly historical, reflecting Venetian chopines of the 16th century, Chinese Lotus shoes for bound feet and Victorian fetish shoes (yes there were such things).

McQueen’s shoes, and others like them, reflect fashions of a bygone era by subjugating women with clothing and footwear specifically designed to restrict movement. Fashion followers may say “I choose to wear them and I pay for them myself, what’s sexist about that?”. But the irony for ‘fashion as slavery’ is that women are taught to desire these things to increase their status and avoid social sidelining, without thinking about the social, historical and cultural subtext. This applies to a whole range of ‘desirable’ female body modifications and adornments, including female genital mutilation, Victorian corsets, and plastic surgery.

Historically, this restriction of movement served two purposes. It debilitated women and kept them confined as domestic subjects, and it demonstrated their wealth through being incapacitated for work and requiring servants to both dress them and aid them in walking. Although enjoyed for their glamor and status, Sixteenth century chopines, with platforms of up to 30 inches high, were considered by contemporary commentators to keep women in the home. Chopines made walking so difficult that clergymen praised them, because they stopped women indulging in morally dangerous pursuits such as dancing. This reflects Chinese foot binding, where women’s feet were deformed from girlhood so that, as an adult, they would fit into shoes as small as 3 inches long. All done for male erotic pleasure, with the bandages removed as a form of foreplay. In anthropological terms, high heels emphasise the buttocks so that the woman is seen to assume a sexually receptive posture and advertise her sexual availability. The pornographication of women’s dress which is a feature of our time, is worn as a statement ‘I am powerful, I am confident in my sexuality and my body’. Yes again there is irony. Women who gain self-esteem and social credits through exposing their body are not empowered at all. Take the photograph of Rihanna on her Russian Roulette album cover. She is pictured topless wearing only a wide corset belt and an eye patch – her breasts barely covered by mock barbed wire. The image is reminiscent of sadomasochism and bondage, the eye patch a grim reminder of her recent assault at the hand of her then partner Chris Brown. I personally love fashion and am an avid researcher of antique dress. However, it pays to think beyond the fashion statement we think we are making, to the one that is being imposed on us by society.

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Chinese foot binding http://www.myseveralworlds.com/2007/08/04/suffering-for-beauty-the-shoes-that-bind/ and http://www.myseveralworlds.com/2007/07/11/suffering-for-beauty-graphic-photos-of-chinese-footbinding/ Chopines http://www.batashoemuseum.ca/exhibitions/on_a_pedestal/index.shtml and http://www.fashionencyclopedia.com/fashion_costume_culture/European-Culture-16th-Century/Chopines.html The Evolution of Sex Differences in Language, Sexuality, and Visual Spatial Skills http://brainmind.com/sexdifferences.html Female Genital Mutilation WHO http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/ Genital Integrity Awareness Week March 29th – April 4th, 2005 http://www.icgi.org/GIAW/GIAW.htm Shoeblog http://www.shoeblog.com/blog/paris-fashion-week-alexander-mcqueen-spring-2010-shoes/

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