The HIGH COST of HIGH HEELS (Aug, 1930)

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By John Hayden

Who Started Them? Why Women Wear Them— What They Do to You

OUT for a walk yesterday morning I encountered a pretty-girl— which is just what should happen when one takes a morning walk and desires to start the day as pleasantly as possible. At the moment when I first saw her she was standing on one of the paths of Central Park throwing bread crumbs to a flock of pigeons that were almost as pretty as she.

She made a delightful picture there in the spring sunshine. Her fresh face was its own color instead of being violently rouged; her red lips, free from artificial aids and shades of carmine, looked anything but kiss-proof; her eyes were clear with the brightness of youth and health; her figure was lithe, slender, and strong; and she had—I mention this because it is vital to what follows—a pair of shapely legs that would have fitted any hosiery advertisement.

Looking at her with such interest as may, perhaps, be allowed without offense to a middle-aged gentleman, I permitted myself unobtrusively to enjoy this picture of youth, vigor, beauty, and abounding health. How splendid, I thought, that this lovely girl was free from the dress habits of her grandmother—free from corset stays, and free from the burden of heavy, multiplied clothing once considered necessary to modesty and virtue!

I was mentally congratulating her, and incidentally congratulating myself on the opportunity to see so attractive and wholesome a sight, when she suddenly threw the last of her supply of crumbs to the pigeons, and departed.

Ah, Reader—what a shock of disillusionment! I wish I might spare you; but the truth is necessary to the moral of this tale. She didn’t walk; she stumped.

I might not have noticed this had she not happened to be in a hurry. Perhaps she had an appointment. Anyhow, she walked very fast—or tried to; and she had not gone twenty steps before she began to run, or tried to. There is no need to go into the painful details. She limped a bit as if her feet hurt her; and she moved along, somehow; but every natural grace of motion that one would have expected from a creature so strong and beautiful had departed.

Her heels came down with sharp, staccato clicks on the pavement. She ran stiff-legged and stiff-bodied, as a marionette might have run. And every resounding thump with every clicking step must have jarred her very brain. It was a shocking transition, as if one of the iridescent, pink-footed pigeons she had been feeding had tried to take flight with a wing clipped or crippled.

I wanted to put my hands over my eyes to shut out the horror of it; but I kept on looking. The spectacle had a dreadful fascination about it. And it had dramatic meanings also; for it seemed to shout at one a question. It seemed to say, “Women have discarded the notion that they cannot be beautiful without stays, and without other former features of apparel to which they once clung for ‘esthetic’ reasons. They have acquired enough faith in nature for that, and enough of sophistication to know that the human body no more needs crudely artificial distortions for the sake of beauty than a lily needs gilding. Will the day ever come when this last citadel of fashionable distortion of the body will be captured and razed, and when women will get over the notion that there is beauty to be achieved by wearing on the foot a leather harness designed expressly to throw it out of position, destroy its beautiful mechanical efficiency, cripple it in and out of action, and make it look from in front as much as possible like a hoof?”

JUST then came along another horror. It was another girl—an inferior type this time. She was brilliant with crudely applied rouge; and whatever she had plastered on her lips to change their expression and hide whatever sweetness and character they might have expressed, would have made her entirely kiss-proof in the eyes of any discriminating male. Her clothes were cheap, rather than economical; her stockings didn’t fit, and her thin, straight shanks, which were as lacking in character as her face, matched the stockings.

And the shoes! Reader, again I would spare you. She had spent her last cent, one guessed, on those shoes.

I don’t know what the heels of them would have measured in inches, but they stood her literally on her toes, and kept her there. Also, they tapered down almost to a point, so that her feet wobbled unsteadily every time she put them down. As was necessary with her feet in such a position, she toed out as she walked. One wondered that she could even stand.

All this, of course, made a violent change, necessarily, in her center of gravity. To accommodate to this displacement of her feet, she had to alter the position of her whole body in order not to topple over. She carried her pelvis thrust forward and her chest back as far as possible. In order to make her posture conform as completely as possible to her shoes, she also kept her knees slightly bent. She made a queer and grotesque sight. One wondered how she could walk. As for running, she wasn’t having any.

ALL that was needed to make her perfect and complete, an utter caricature, was plenty of fat. A fat woman, stumping along on a pair of those pointed heels, I reflected, would have made this morning’s experience with certain feminine notions of beauty complete. I would wait, I decided hopefully. Maybe the Queen of Love and Beauty—the Ultimate “It” Lady—would show up. Nothing short of 250 pounds, and heels three inches high, tapering to nothing, and calves six inches in diameter, tapering toward the heels, would satisfy my desire to see the Perfect Thing. So I waited. For anything can happen in New York.

Reader, believe it or not, she came. A diminutive but fat little Pomeranian was leading her along by the string, guiding her in such a manner as to keep her in the middle of the walk, while she devoted her entire attention to putting down her feet in alternation, and balancing herself as she moved from foot to foot, so to speak. It was an inspiring sight—such nerve—such verve—such adaptability to the pull of gravitation. One felt that with her talents she should have been on stilts, or—a tight-rope.

I went home exhausted. Sometimes life in this Big Town is full—too full. The next esthetic experience, after all that, would logically be the Ring-straked Willipus-Wallipus coming round the next corner, as forerunner to a fit of delirium tremens. When I see him I’ll report. But one thing I’ll bet on is that not even to the Willipus-Wallipus would it ever occur to wear high-heeled shoes on the theory that any living being trying to locomote in them is a beautiful or a pleasing sight. He leaves such notions to the ladies; and personally, if you ask him, he would rather wear no shoes at all.

Most persons are familiar with the old Greek myth of Atalanta, the king’s daughter who was so swift of foot that she could outrun any man. Many suitors sought her hand. Each had to race with her; and if he lost, he lost his life. At last came one who delayed her by the ruse of the Golden Apples. There is a famous picture of Atalanta running that last race. Some maker of fashionable, high-heeled, short-vamped, narrow-toed shoes for women ought to post that picture in his shop window alongside of a motion picture of a woman even trying to walk acceptably in a pair of his shoes.

I talked recently with a woman about the shoes she was wearing. She insisted they were “sensible” shoes— because they were not spike-heeled—though they lifted her heels two inches off the floor.

“Oh, I admit that one’s foot should not be held in such a position,” she acknowledged at last. “But what can one do? This is the style. I don’t want to be queer; and—you can say what you like, but a foot in a high-heeled shoe looks better than one in a low-heeled shoe, whether it is more comfortable or not.”

WHEN I was a boy,” I answered, “no woman could conceive of herself as wearing close-fitting sleeves. Big sleeves were the mode, and the close-fitting kind seemed queer and ugly. Big sleeves were regarded as a style which, because of its beauty, had come to stay. They were as firmly enthroned in the minds of the women of that day as is the close-fitting sleeve, or the high heel, in the minds of women today. Doesn’t that suggest that such judgments are to be distrusted? Doesn’t it mean, perhaps, that the only criterion to be depended on is that which bases its notion of beauty on the natural fitness of a thing, and that it would be best for the woman of today to trust nature, and to revise her notions of beauty to match. She has already done so with respect to corsets, bustles, and the rest of the absurd list which your grandmother swore by, and your mother swore at, and which you don’t even bother your head about.

“Since you are relieved of the job of thinking your way through to sanity in these matters, and were, so to speak, born with a sane horror of these insanities of the past, why don’t you assault this last citadel of 100 per cent, lunacy and finish up the job?”

“You actually mean that without high heels you think there would be no craziness left”in women’s clothes?” she asked amusedly.

“Heaven forbid,” I said devoutly. “Clothes will remain ipso facto crazy so long as they remain a shield for ‘modesty’ and a stimulus to prudery. They will become sane only when they serve their legitimate purpose, for protection and for ornament.” , “But our high heels are for ornament,” she retorted.

VERY clever of you,” I acknowledged. “But legitimate ornamentation does not fly in the face of nature. The best proof that high heels are not and cannot be beautiful, regardless of whether they are considered so or not, is simply that they so cripple the women who wear them that they cannot walk or run freely. No inept thing can be beautiful. The burden of proof, therefore, rests on those who insist that there is either use or beauty to be found in a device which makes it hard to walk or run, and impossible to stand rightly, and which results in breaking down the feet, and in disturbing the healthful functioning of the whole body. It just can’t be. Every known law of esthetics and common sense forbids such a notion.”

“That may all be,” she said. “But I’ve worn reasonably high heels for years; and when I try to walk in shoes with really low heels, such as you men wear, I’m not comfortable.”

“How could you expect to be?” I asked. “You wear a shoe that makes you stand and walk with your heel lifted, year after year, high off the ground. That causes a shortening of the Achilles tendon, right over your heel, because you don’t use it and stretch it by normal walking. Naturally, if you then abandon high heels, you have to put up with a period of inconvenience till your foot becomes capable once more of normal action. In extreme cases that tendon has to be lengthened by a surgeon, but ordinarily a persistent wearing of proper shoes will bring it back where it belongs.”

“But why bother—if I’m comfortable as I am?”

“You are not really comfortable,” I said. “You have merely forgotten what a comfortable, normal use of the foot is like.”

As usual the argument came to nothing, but it did at least serve to bring out some of the motives which lead women to a continued use of high heels. Of these the most formidable is the fact that prevailing notions of beauty in style are almost invariably, so far as the mass mind is concerned, based on the mode. To the individual whose mind, for want of originality, imagination and power of independent thought, travels passively with the mass, whatever is fashionable and in common use is pleasing and beautiful; and everything that fails to conform to that is queer and ugly. Are “they” wearing them? If so, good; if not, no good!

There is little point in an inquiry as to how these arbitrary preferences of fashion originate. High heels are said to have started with Louis XIV, who tried to increase his diminutive stature by having his shoemaker devise a heel that would put him on his toes. Since a king started it, it easily became the fashion. Then it was found to have certain other advantages. For instance, it foreshortened the lines of the foot, and so made it look smaller. In a day when a small foot was valued, any device that would do that was welcome. Women with large feet wore the highest heels they could; and women with small feet wore them likewise to maintain their lead. But today the small foot is no longer prized as it once was. The woman in industry has to have a foot she can stand on; and if her foot be but serviceable, strong, and graceful, she asks no more. Nor will she tolerate a shoe which will hamper her in her work, particularly if that work be of a kind to keep her on her feet.

SUCH genuine standards of value are gaining ground among women of character, independent judgment, and real intelligence. This fact alone spells the ultimate doom of high heels. But from the masculine point of view, even the women who have consciously broken away from the high heel are by no means thoroughgoing in this rebellion. Such women still compromise on the heel that is betwixt and between, and they still accept heels which no man in his senses would touch with a ten-foot pole. The woman who, even for sport, will use a really low-heeled, broad-heeled shoe, of the sort worn by men as a matter of course all the time, is rare. Most women think nothing of going for a tramp, for instance, in heels almost the length of their little finger. What it seems to amount to is that the average woman will wear as high a heel (Continued on page 122) as can he worn for a given purpose with what she considers reasonable, though incomplete comfort. She fights for the high heel every inch of the way, and she has never wholeheartedly gone over to the low-heeled camp, which, she conceives, is inhabited mainly by freaks and frumps who don’t care how their feet look.

The plain fact is that the lowest heel the average woman will tolerate is so high that no man would put up with it for a moment. The heel on the ordinary men’s shoe, allowing for the thickness of the sole, is about a half inch high. But to most women a low heel is a narrow one at least an inch and a half high and anything lower is simply—well, it just isn’t done.

It is worth while to consider what that means. The pretty girl I saw in the park had the average standard for what constitutes a sensible shoe: yet she couldn’t walk fast and she couldn’t run with either grace or comfort. That is the absolutely conclusive answer to anyone who would defend the shoes she wore—and most women would defend them.

What that two inches off the ground means is a proportionate habitual displacement both of the foot, and of the whole body, in standing, walking, or running. Another thing it means is that any shoe which lifts the heels very much above horizontal ha* to be tight in front in order to hold back the foot that slides down into it by way of a thirty-degree slope. The foot either has to fetch up against something, or go through the front of the shoe. Anything that will stop it from doing that has to cramp the front of the foot, force the toes out of place and into grotesque positions, and play hob with what is already a bad business.

Of COURSE there is vastly more the matter with women’s shoes than just the heel, though it is from the heel that most of the trouble comes. Not only does it, as has just been said, force the foot to slide down hill against a toe-cramping obstruction, but, to make the matter worse, most such shoes come to a point, with the result that the toes are forced into a wedge.

This has a particularly unfortunate effect on the great toe. Few persons who had everything but the right shoes. Let me close with one who had even the right shoes. She was one of the thousand figures that pass one in a great city. They flash on your sight and are gone. This one did just that. She was swinging along with an easy, free-limbed stride that attracted the admiring attention of many of the people that she passed. But what interested me was the shoes that enabled her to walk that way. In sharp contrast to the shoes worn by every other woman in sight, her shoes were beautiful. They were simply a pair of tan oxfords, and they were precisely like any first class man’s shoe—with all the snap and elegance that can be had in such a shoe. The only difference was that instead of being big they were little, and fit her trim foot to perfection. I don’t know how the dozens of women who gazed after her, half envious perhaps of the grace with which she moved, could have failed to see that here, on these flashing feet, was a covering that left them beautiful because it left them free.

It is to be hoped that women will wake up to the fact that their shoes are, by every known principle of esthetics, not beautiful; that their shoe hygiene, like their shoe esthetics, is strictly “on the blink”; and that the next step in their emancipation had better be less attention to what “they” are wearing, and more to the finding of a non-barbaric form of footwear.

  1. docca says: February 23, 20094:02 pm

    Interesting article. Sounds pretty sensible even today. I’m a fan of women on high heels, but it takes quite some mastery from the women to walk graciously on them. Those who don’t end up with terrible, terrible-looking feet. Haven’t we all seen what he describes?

  2. Torgo says: February 24, 20091:27 am

    This guy seems to think a lot about high-heels.

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