Stilettos and Women’s Liberation: What have they got in common?

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Written By Kirryn Zerna

Feminists were flat against them. Flappers were out to shake them. While Dior made them a household name. This International Women’s Day we trace the twentieth-century woman’s stride to freedom and the shoes she wore along the way.

 Who knew the well-trodden path to women’s liberation would follow the rise and fall of the high heel?

Stepping out

Comfortable, practical, and ready-for-duty heels stepped out on the very first International Women’s Day on March 19th, 1911. Over 30,000 women gathered at the largest street demonstration in Europe, joining thousands across the globe.

1925 Sears Catalogue   

Following this chorus of confidence, the heel rose in stature to enhance the glamour of the Roaring ’20s.
The high heel gave the illusion of longer and more slender legs. And a racy frock demanded a statement shoe.   

Heels at war

 However, it couldn’t last. The captivating allure of the 1920s faded against the harsh realities of two World Wars and the Great Depression.

The high heel trend plummeted along with spirits to a more practical, low and wide heel.

The heel revival

Post-war in the 1950s, good times were breaking through.  The high heel revival began again. Fashion designers like Christian Dior were going even higher with their first 5-inch stiletto heel.

It was a shaken, but battle-strong woman who stepped into this new free world.

She’d gained her confidence and independence while the men were off to war. She had demanded her right to vote, fiercely fought by The Suffrage movement in most Western nations, and her traditional role in society was dramatically changing.

The stomping 60s

Heel fashion, like the political and social state of the time, shifted significantly in the 60s and 70s. It was no longer about height and style, but about statement and freedom. And with that came the chunky platform shoe.

At the time, her role of mother and housewife was shrugged off for that of career woman. The introduction of the pill brought freedom to plan pregnancies and gain ‘control’ over her body and future. So women flooded universities and the workforce – in industries not previously broached – in fields of medicine, politics and business.

The rising trend

Manolo Blahnki Stilettos

Designers like Manolo Blahnik brought back the sky-high stiletto in the 1980s and 90s.

The modern woman found stature and authority in her lofty heel. She fought for equality in the workforce, and challenged the traditional perceptions of her role and value across all levels of society.

The heel had earned its entitlement on catwalks, department store shelves, and then the wardrobe of every woman. She was confident. She was on her way.

The Heel Debate

Now I know what you’re thinking. It’s sexist to equate high heels and women’s liberation, right?
And you would be right, according to the views of the feminists of the 1960s and many still today.
Feminist groups were flat against it. Overly erotic or a form of ‘self-harm’, they saw heels as a male-invented shackle aimed to slow the progress towards women’s freedom, both literally and figuratively.
In the last 20 years, feminist views have receded – or indeed popular view has demonstrated acceptance – that the wearer of the heels does so for themselves, and not simply to appeal to the opposite sex.
So why is that one person’s view of the oppression from a patriarchal society, so vehemently opposed to someone else’s pursuit of personal expression?
I guess it’s because the feminist movement, or path to women’s liberation, is all about freedom of choice.
And women aren’t just women, they’re individuals. Individuals who have the freedom to walk-it-out in whatever they choose –stilettos, flip flops, sneakers – you name it, girlfriend.

 Celebrating freedom

So, whether you’re liberating the flats or the heels from your wardrobe today, there’s much to celebrate as we approach International Women’s Day.
Since that first march for freedom in 1913, we’ve benefited from the patient tread of courage and determination by ordinary women that saw extraordinary progress, change and transformation.
While the debate continues about women in leadership and on boards, and the need to turn our efforts to ending poverty for the global poor wages on. I’m grateful to follow in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before me… and consider my swagger for those who’ll follow behind.
But it seems for now, the high heel – like women’s liberation – is here to stay.

 International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated each year on the 8th of March. IWD is a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women in the past, present and future. For information and events: