These shoes are made for dancing. Rebecca Willis works out how to dress feet up, without falling down ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010
When people discuss what causes the worst hangover—red or white wine? the grape or the grain?—they never mention high heels. That is an oversight. For occasional heel-wearers like me, the morning after the night before is often distinguished by tingling leg muscles, crushed toes and a twinge in the small of the back. Evidently the experts, those women who run around Bambi-legged in heels all day long, don’t have this problem, but I’ve always assumed that when they remove their shoes their feet are stuck in position, like Barbie’s. Mine go flat to the ground. But whenever I vow to put on sensible flats and kick my party heel-habit, I think I can do it…until the next invitation drops through the letterbox.
In the morning you get dressed, but for parties you dress up; and “up” is the operative word. When was the last time you went to a party—and I mean one with a certain sense of occasion—and saw a woman in flats? Exactly. But high heels raise a lot of questions, as well as your height above sea level. Why do we want to be taller? Why are we stuck in a Mannerist era that prizes elongation and distortion? Why is it acceptable for women to wear monster heels while short men are sniggered at for relatively modest ones? (Louis XIV, not a tall chap, started a vogue for men’s heels, but it didn’t last.) More darkly—and vats of feminist ink have been spilt on this subject—what do high heels mean? Let me answer all of these questions with another, easier question. Which is more elegant, a giraffe or a hippo? I’ll give you a clue. It’s the tall one.
It appears that, as long as women want to appear graceful, heels will exist; the enduring question is how best to wear them. Here are some simple sums for making party heels add up. Short cocktail dress + boots = cool. Short dress + dainty shoes = ladylike. Short dress + chunky heels = funky.
A floor-length dress asks for heels as high as possible to create the illusion of a classical column (but too-high shoes, in which you have to stand with your knees bent, are always ugly with anything). Below-the-knee hemlines need interesting and preferably revealing shoes to sidestep the ageing-hippie look. Strappy sandals with tights are questionable, unless you are young and going for a touch of grunge; likewise tights that are darker than your shoes.
Perhaps the simplest solution of all is the Party Boot. Whenever I can, and especially if dancing is threatened, I wear boots: they encase the foot and are more stable; they are warm; and if you want to wear arch supports or shock-absorbing gel pads there is no chance of them showing or falling out. I am indebted to Prada’s stretch-fabric boots—in many styles, some bought on eBay—which have flexible rubber soles, and to two pairs of boots by Sergio Rossi, one made (how?) of elasticated leather.
My other heel tips—and I don’t mean the rubber bits that get ripped off in street gratings—are to do with gradient, weight and balance. Thank goodness for platforms, which give height without the sensation of standing on a black run. My highest heels, a pair of matt gold sandals by Lanvin, have a 12cm heel (I know, ridiculous) but with a 3cm platform as well, I hardly notice I’m wearing them. For the first half of the evening, anyway. They are also light as meringue (the Holy Grail of platforms, ever since Ferragamo used wine corks to create the first lightweight ones in the 1930s): each shoe weighs 206 grams. By comparison, my grey-and-aubergine satin platforms from Ash not only weigh 256 grams, but are far less comfortable because there is too much weight in the heel. Balance, as Evangeline Blahnik once told me when I was a young Voguette breathlessly snapping up a bargain in a Manolo sample sale, is all, and her brother spends aeons making sure he gets it just right.
Recently I overheard a woman in a shoe shop lamenting that she couldn’t walk in a pair of skyscraper boots. The assistant replied: “Well, they’re not for walking.” I think that’s going a bit far. My list of things not to do in heels includes: running, walking on cobbles (particularly in wedges, when you get a see-saw effect) and taking public transport.
Nor should you rush. I know a woman who broke her ankle falling sideways off a pair of mules, and another who broke her shoulder when she caught her heel in her trouser hem. Both were doing the school run at the time. On a less dramatic health note, and as my mother taught me, always touch your toes (knees straight, mind) after removing high heels, to stretch your Achilles tendons back to their proper length. Otherwise you really might end up with feet like Barbie.
Illustration: Bill Brown