The Tyranny of Louis’ Shoes
April 22, 2015 § 3 Comments
It’s great to see three women party leaders together on television, all of them on the left and offering a forceful challenge to Austerity. With her clear-cut Keynesian arguments and persuasively stated conviction that Britain needs to be a fairer place, Nicola Sturgeon has become the acknowledged star of the election debates. Her status as leader of the party most likely to exert influence on a minority Labour government puts her on a surer footing than the other two. Her eloquence impresses with its spontaneity as much as the well-prepared words, yet there have been no missteps, not a single faux pas. She thinks on her feet.
Enough of the foot metaphors. It’s the literal body part that’s on my mind. I feared for Nicola on last Thursday night’s BBC1 debate. Not because of her performance from the podium (incidentally, a word deriving from the Greek for foot), but as I watched her leave it and walk across the glassy platform floor, then descend towards the audience, I gasped. How easy it would have been to teeter or stumble to a fall in those aptly named ‘killer’ heels. Though Leanne Wood was equally in peril my concern was mainly for Sturgeon. I’m a Scot after all, and there would be more seats at stake should the SNP leader wind up hindering her campaign with a broken ankle. Why, I’ve been wondering, should these powerful, serious women put themselves at risk of ridicule and injury with their footwear?
I’m not criticising either of them for what they’re wearing. Female politicians are too often at the mercy of those who judge them by their appearance, while their male counterparts can take refuge in the standard uniform and the cost or cut of their dark suits makes little difference to public perceptions. Sturgeon dresses to achieve a look of control and good taste. With her neat fitted dresses and jackets she avoids over-masculine tailoring; she doesn’t stick to monochrome but her colour choices are unemphatic, her hair always impeccable, neatly moulded around her face and firmly fixed with spray. Clothes speak, especially if you’re a woman, and she clearly doesn’t want hers to be a distraction. The heels seem at odds with such containment.
Maybe it was this mismatch between styles above and below the ankle that prompted an unlikely commentator on The World at One this week to express her surprise at the heels worn by Sturgeon and Wood: Alexandra Shulman, the editor of Vogue. Presenter Martha Kearney concurred, suggesting it might just be a matter of adding height (at least 5 inches, from what I’d seen on the debate).
Sensible shoes have been my lot for many years, and I’ve sometimes envied friends that inch or two they could add. Today’s ‘heels’ (the single word all that’s required to denote spindly height) have risen far above the stilettoes of my distant early youth (or peerie heels, as they were known in Glasgow) and I couldn’t wear those either. As Shulman and Kearney must know very well, today’s ‘heels’ are not just about height; they’re the ultimate fetish footwear, with a certain talismanic eroticism invested in height, shape and brand.
Fashionable though they are, they’re not everyday footwear; beyond the milieux of models and celebs, they make their appearance at special occasions, and when young – and not so young – women head out for an evening at clubs and parties. By day most women are walking to work in boots, trainers, flats and sand shoes. In the 50s and 60s television presenters had to appear in evening dress. Things have changed a lot, but it’s as if heels have established themselves as a new kind of formal on news programmes such as Newsnight, worn by presenters and often their female guests, many of whom are politicians or political commentators. In this context they’ve become almost compulsory, which may explain how Sturgeon and Wood were shod last Thursday.
Symbolically at least, this harks back to earlier examples of female hobbling: foot binding persisted in China until the 20th century; noble ladies in Renaissance Venice tottered around in shoes with elevated platform soles. Whether or not some women today regard their 5-inch heels as ‘empowering’, a matter of choice, a means of feeling taller, more confident, sexier, it’s curious that female public figures endowed with influence are expected literally to toe this line.
Heels acquire names: Louis, kitten, stiletto and probably sundry others. It’s the Louis that reminded me of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and Roberto Rossellini’s terrific film, made for French television in 1966: La Prise de pouvoir de Louis Quatorze. It shows how the young king, politically insecure at the start of his reign, set about bending the will of court and government alike by centring state power on himself and imposing strict and elaborate rules of fashion, decorum and manners in every aspect of court life. Hence the frills and furbelows of male dress, not least the heels – all very expensive, to say nothing of the time involved in keeping up with the fussiest details.
Though we’re not subject to such overt dictates, pressures are everywhere. It’s not just fashion’s forms that change, but its nature in relation to the times it reflects. In the 60s and 70s British fashion became anarchic and eclectic. By comparison there’s a slavishness to it now, a level of commodification that’s rooted in the world of celebs and promotes a labour-intensive and cash-intensive glamour to be aspired to. What women politicians wear is not irrelevant. I own to taking pleasure in looking at their clothes, their style, at seeing them stand out among the dark-suited men. But as women rise in number in the parliaments of Britain, they must be careful not to fall. Even Naomi Campbell did, and she’s a catwalk expert.