I recently had an unexpected interaction on a New York City train, during which I chatted with a newly engaged, middle-aged woman living in Washington Heights. Despite the torrentially rainy weather, she beamed with pleasure carefully clutching a shopping bag of Christian Louboutins for her wedding. Though tempted to bemoan societal pressures women face to spend large sums of money on beauty products and to perform their femininity through elaborate ceremony, I couldn’t help but feel the tangible, confident happiness of this woman, giddy in anticipation of her upcoming nuptials. Likewise, our shared knowledge of Louboutins is what sparked the friendly conversation and instant comradery between us—two strangers on the NYC subway.
Christian Louboutin, designer of the much-coveted red bottom heels, once shared, “The core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men.” With a price tag often rising above four figures and a level of discomfort I associate with sports injuries, I myself have never invested in such a pair of “shoes”—a term perhaps not applicable to high heels, which quite often fail their test of functionality as reliable footwear. As an art historian, I spend a lot of time thinking about the visual weight and often conflicting connotations of symbols. And high heels symbolize so many counterintuitive cultural tropes—femininity, professionalism, fashion, sex, privilege, power, and ambition among them. Heels are supportive in height but otherwise debilitating, causing discomfort, falls, and long-term podiatric issues.
As more of a Frye boot and pointed flat kinda gal, my appreciation for the high heel stems from a more aesthetic place. I find value in these objects as forms of sculpture, admiring them in fine art exhibitions like the Brooklyn Museum’s 2014 show, “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” curated by Lisa Small, the 2011 Metropolitan Museum of Art’s blockbuster exhibition “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” curated by The Costume Institute’s Andrew Bolton, and “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes,” organized by Barrett Barrera Projects and MUSEEA. I appreciate design that pushes visual icons to a point where the viewer hesitates to call the object in question by its labeled name; and I argue that this kind of conceptual expansion of naming productively complicates how we think about identity, fruitfully prompting further creative thinking.
When I find myself drawn to uncomfortable footwear, lacey underwear, frilly dresses, or wedding Pinterest boards, I run through an internal monologue in which I ask myself, do I find these things appealing because I’m choosing to like them or because I’m socially preconditioned to invest in and perform a pre-set type of femininity? (A type that, as Mr. Louboutin once noted, exists for the pleasure of the patriarchy). Though one can probably never fully escape the social structures into which we’re born, at what point can women proudly command ownership and redefine those objects once employed to restrict us socially?
My mind runs in circles around this topic (and quickly, as it too wears sensible shoes) until remembering once again my friend on the subway. Her tangible joy reverberated through the train car full of drenched and dreary transit passengers. If she feels like a million bucks on her wedding day in her red bottom stilettos, perhaps the thousand dollar price tag makes them a steal.