Besides a tube of bright red lipstick or a freshly shellacked set of fingernails, few items have symbolized modern femininity more than a striking stiletto heel. Curvaceous yet angular, dainty yet strong, the stiletto is intimidating, elegant and just downright sexy. It is, after all, the only shoe that is scientifically proven to make women more attractive to mates.
But its status as a fashion power symbol may be going from high to low.
From the Instagram feeds of fashion’s biggest influencers, to the offices of the best-dressed fashion editors, sneakers and other flat(ish) shoes reign. Scuffed-up skateboard shoes peak out from under tailored, wide-leg trousers. Leather loafers and mules seem made for high-waisted, bootcut Levi’s. Brogues pair with pencil skirts. Chelsea boots with trousers charm.
The reality of what’s stylish today would even make Manolo Blahnik-loving Carrie Bradshaw wonder, “What exactly does it mean when no one is wearing stilettos anymore?”
Probably that fashion continues to become more accessible and easier for all women to embrace if they choose to.
“You look at the front row of every fashion show and everyone’s in sneakers,” says Karin Bereson, one of the owners of the Nolita boutique No. 6. Beloved by fashionable, on-the-go women in New York and elsewhere, Bereson’s brand is known for versatile, sculptural clogs. “We’ve offered women in urban places something they can wear to work, out to dinner, to a bar, on a date, to a show, whatever,” Bereson says. “And they’re comfortable in them for ten hours straight.”
It’s hard to separate the rise of the flat shoes from the popularity of–yes, it’s an awful word–athleisure. That’s the trend that has all us wearing gym leggings instead of jeans to brunch now.
“Fashion has had a love affair with athleisure for a few seasons now,” says Erica Russo, the operating vice president and fashion director for accessories and beauty at Bloomingdale’s. So it makes sense that shoes are following a more casual path.
“It’s perfectly accessible and chic to wear an embellished block heel, Mary Janes or pointy-toed flats, even for dressier occasions,” Russo says. Or even what are essentially pink fuzzy slippers. (We’re looking at you, Rihanna.)
Of course, much of the appeal of flat shoes and sneakers is practical. There are many potential pitfalls in wearing stilettos, and most of them involve actually falling. You’ve been there, right? Clémence Polès, founder of the shoppable lifestyle blog Passerbuys, sums up the logic of current footwear trends easily: “There are so many comfortable shoes that are also fashionable, so why would I put on something that makes it hard for me to walk?”
Until recently, the answer seemed pretty obvious: because stilettos made us look good. Shoes meant to make you taller have been around almost as long as shoes themselves. Around 4000 BCE, ancient Egyptian butchers strapped on high heels to avoid stepping in the undesirable byproducts of their profession. But until the Renaissance, they were largely the province of men. Only after Catherine de Medici wore heels to her wedding in 1533—because she hoped to stand taller than her husband’s mistress—did more women start sporting heels, but they did so in order to look more masculine.
In 1789, the French Revolution saw the fall of frivolous aristocracy, and men promptly began to consider heels too impractical. The stiletto as we currently understand it—as sexy, gendered footwear—didn’t emerge until after World War II, and it was a response to soldiers’ fantasies of pinup girls dressed in high heels and not much else.
Since then, studies have shown that the smaller steps and higher butts stilettos facilitate have the evolutionary benefit of making women seem more feminine, and so, despite other studies that link high heels to health problems like shortened calf muscles, lower back pain and arthritis, the stiletto has more or less endured.
Multiple designers have attempted to harness advanced technology to make a stiletto that causes its wearer less suffering. Last year, for example, Thesis Couture founder and CEO Dolly Singh debuted what she called the “Tesla of high heels,” which maintain the knife-like shape of the stiletto while distributing weight like a wedge. Sneaker designer Christopher Dixon developed a dystopian-looking dual-heel stiletto that also promised a less agonizing experience.
None of this has really caught on. Instead, what makes more good sense has.
“Now that women are more empowered, I think we are less interested in the aesthetic [of stilettos] and what it connotes,” says Polès. “Stilettos definitely enhance some features, but they don’t really allow us to do much more than look pretty.”
Bereson agrees, and also points to cerebral, allusive designers like Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy, who are “constantly picking out elements of bad taste” in order to craft appeals beyond prettiness. Though the former sent a collaboration with Manolo Blahnik down the runway for their spring 2017 collection, that look was, Bereson notes, layered with ironic. “The stiletto is used as such a nod and a throwback—it’s something that nobody would normally be wearing. Like, oh my God, remember those pointy, toe-cleavage stilettos?
“Those Manolo Blahniks might be fun for a runway thing,” Bereson continues, “but I just can’t see women going back to that.”