This February, Yale University Press is publishing the lavishly illustrated Shoe Obsession by Valerie Steele and Colleen Hill. The book introduces more than 150 pairs of some of the most creative and inspiring shoe designs—with a particular focus on high-heeled shoes—over the past 12 years, from the likes of Manolo Blahnik, Pierre Hardy, Christian Louboutin and other influential designers. To coincide with the visual sneak preview on our Facebook page, here’s an extract from the informative introduction to Shoe Obsession.
Sigmund Freud famously asked, “What do women want?” For many women, the answer appears to be shoes. Of course, I am being facetious, and it would be absurd to suggest that all women just “naturally” love shoes. However, women who are interested in fashion do exhibit a particular enthusiasm for shoes, especially high heels. Men also tend to respond with almost Pavlovian ardour to the sight of a woman in high-heeled shoes. If there is a little bit of Imelda Marcos in many women, there seems to be a little bit of the shoe fetishist in many men. Shoe obsession is not a new phenomenon, but it is one that has been growing in significance since the beginning of the twenty-first century, when extraordinary designer shoes with extremely high heels became central to fashion.
Why are we obsessed with shoes? And why are shoes so important now?
Our obsession with shoes is “over-determined” (as psychiatrists would say), because the cultural significance of shoes is so multi-faceted. An intimate extension of the body, shoes convey a wealth of information about an individual’s sexuality, social status, and aesthetic sensibility. “You can judge 90% of people’s personalities by their shoes, researchers say,” trumpeted a recent headline. However, this seems to exaggerate what the researchers actually found, and it certainly blurs the definition of “personality.” After all, you don’t have multiple personality disorder, just because you have dozens of pairs of shoes! Nevertheless, shoes unquestionably have tremendous social and psychological power.
Feminists have traditionally regarded high heels, corsets, and (of course) foot-binding as profoundly disempowering for women. Yet by patronizing women as the “victims” of patriarchy and the “slaves” of fashion, they ignore the reasons that so many women chose to wear corsets or bind their daughters’ feet. Today’s fashion for high-heeled shoes is entirely optional, but it raises some of the same questions about why women choose to follow “irrational” fashions. We shall return to this issue later, but the short answer is that they see benefits and pleasures in doing so.
Consider the Cinderella story, of which there are a number of historical variants, some with a fur shoe instead of a glass slipper. In one version, the stepsisters cut off their toes and heels in a vain attempt to squeeze their feet into the tiny shoes, but are betrayed by a trail of blood. In William Klein’s satiric film, Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1965), a professor explains the significance of the Cinderella story as “the value of tiny feet and beautiful shoes.” He triumphantly concludes, “So there you are: Fetishism, mutilation, pain. Fashion in a nutshell.”
From the introduction to Shoe Obsession by Valerie Steele and Colleen Hill