All fashion is artifice—but trainers with heels, Rebecca Willis argues, are going too far
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2013
You may have noticed that recently a lot of women have become longer in the lower leg. But you have been tricked, by something called the hidden-wedge sneaker. If you look again, you’ll see that the stretched-tibia-and-fibula look is always accompanied by swollen, clumpy footwear—trainers that look as if they’ve been living on fast food.
The woman chiefly responsible for this craze is the French designer Isabel Marant, whose uplifting creations have been selling out for several seasons at around £400 a pair. They change hands on eBay for considerably more, and last winter the high street was full of cheap and cheerfully coloured imitations. Marant says that as a teenager she cut up pieces of cork and put them in her sneakers because she wanted to look taller. Moving swiftly past her unquestioning pursuit of tallness—which seems to have become an axiom of modern life—let’s examine the conundrum that is a trainer with a secret heel. It is neither a functional piece of sports gear (number seen on the track at the Olympics: zero), nor is it an object of beauty and elegance. On contradictions such as this—between the casual and the contrived—fashion thrives.
I don’t mean to spoil the wit of the thing, but can’t you equally see this sneaky method of adding extra height while dressing down as a way of looking scruffy while still getting backache? Part of the attraction of casual clothes, surely, is not having the mobility issues associated with wearing heels. There’s the rub, of course (possibly literally in this case): it’s not meant to make sense, it’s the non-sense which is an integral part of the attraction.
Yet I feel uncomfortable about the hidden-wedge sneaker and I have worked out why: it sets out to deceive in a way that a-heel-that-is-clearly-a-heel does not. Visible heels say you think you look better taller; invisible heels say you are taller. Which brings us to the whole subject of truth and lies—perhaps fictions would be a kinder word—in the way we dress.
Clothing is, to a greater or lesser extent, a disguise, a covering for the bare, forked animals we are beneath. Shakespeare was aware of its power. Macbeth’s "vaulting ambition" is underlined by a series of images of "borrowed robes", of a man putting on things that do not fit him. When Lear says "through tattered clothes great vices do appear/Robes and furred gowns hide all", he is pointing out that outfits can lie and, further, that the more of them you can afford, the more lies you can tell—a thought that, in our consumerist culture, may be worth holding on to.
If the animal kingdom is any guide, where the limit of what might be called natural is washing, preening and a spot of grooming for nits, everything we do to alter our appearances is artificial. The spectrum of this artifice is broad, starting with the first fig leaf at one end and ending up with radical cosmetic surgery at the other. Make-up, hair dye, holds-your-tummy-in underwear, padded bras, laser hair-removal, high heels…these and all the rest take their places somewhere in between. And somewhere in between, too, each of us unconsciously draws a line. On one side are all the things that we find acceptable, on the other are all the things that we don’t. Precisely where the line falls is an interaction between current fashion and our individual personalities.
This line may be sharply etched on certain issues, fuzzy and blurred on others; sometimes we redraw it completely—we change our minds, we succumb to the Zeitgeist, we rebel. I was raised, for instance, to think pierced ears were tarty, so it felt daring when I had them done at 18, long after my friends had. I even had two holes in one ear for a while. Cool, I thought. But piercings anywhere else on the body? Absolutely not. Cosmetic surgery is beyond the pale, too (so far, at least). That’s partly because I draw the line at bloodshed, but mostly because it goes beyond making the best of what you were born with—which I feel all right about—into active deception, which I don’t.
Some clothes are more deceitful than others. When I try to imagine—because those days are gone—getting undressed in front of a new romantic prospect, I know I’d be embarrassed if part of my bosom was attached to the bra. Or if my tummy unfurled itself when released from its restraining underwear. I would feel exposed, but not in the intended way: to be caught lying is to offer an accidental glimpse of your deepest vulnerability. I would rather have "I wish I was taller" tattooed in big letters on my forehead than wear a pair of hidden-wedge sneakers. Except that tattoos are also on the wrong side of my line.