Why Women Applaud and Men Mourn the Downfall of High Heels

Are they professional attire? Confidence boosters? Mating tools? Opinions vary, but one thing's certain: high heels are losing ground.

October 17, 2023 7:12 am
A man placing a high heel on a woman standing inline with other women in heels
Some men absolutely love a high heel. But women appear to be opting for something comfier.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty

“I love high heels,” says Caroline McCartney. “I love the way they make me feel. High heels give you a confidence, a certain glamor. They’re empowering. But then I don’t practice what I preach.”

McCartney is president of the U.K.’s Institute of Chiropodists and Podiatrists, the world’s oldest professional organization for foot health specialists. Let her personal enthusiasm for high heels abate, and she will tell you that wearing them “completely alters the way the foot functions, and not in a good way. It upsets the entire body’s mechanics.” High heels will shorten the calf muscle, damage tendons and inflame the foot’s soft tissues. It can stress the spine, weaken the ankles, create hammer toes and ruin nails.

“You can’t put a pair of high heels on without immediately sensing the constriction in your feet, how they throw you off balance,” she adds. “What can I say? Women know the damage being done, but they like to ignore the facts.”

At least, some women do. Look around and, as McCartney notes, it’s hard to escape the sense that high heels are not the popular choice that they once were. Sales were in decline before Covid, but the pandemic saw sales collapse in 2020 by as much as 65% year-on-year, even as inventory went up. Just as the work-from-home era liberated many from suits in favor of sweatpants, so it has also ensured that heels have given way to the practicality of what some disparage as “sensible” footwear. 

Sneakers — sales of which are sky-high — have even been given a luxury makeover that provides them with the cultural kudos once only found in a pair of towering Manolo Blahniks. But that perhaps is just cover for the real reason for purchase: A post-pandemic survey by Amex Trendex found that female consumers were twice as likely to say they were excited about buying “comfortable” shoes than pairs suited to “professional dress.”

Yet McCartney insists she is not alone in loving the effect of high heels. They don’t just make a woman stand taller, of course, they shift her posture — it makes bust and bum jut out to conform to a stereotype of female “curviness” — and builds a wiggle into her gait, “like jello on springs,” as Jack Lemmon notes of Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot

“The way heels make you carry yourself can make you feel more attractive, at least in male terms,” McCartney says.

Studies seem to confirm this too. One in 2022 detailed how silhouettes showing women wearing heels were rated more attractive by men, physically and sexually, than those in flat shoes. Other studies suggest that the appeal of high heels to men is not that they accentuate leg shape by putting the calf into permanent tension, nor that they make legs look longer, both of which may be true; it’s that they accentuate the arch of the back. What does this position — commonplace in the mammalian world — signal to men, according to a study by Murdoch University in Australia? That these women are ready for sex. 

Women in High Heels Are Seen as More Attractive, Says Study
They may no longer be mandatory for a formal or professional look, but heels will never truly go out of style

Wearing high heels then may be a fast way for women to get male attention, the pain seen as an acceptable trade-off. As the shoe designer Christian Louboutin, known for his high heels, once noted, “The core of my work is dedicated not to pleasing women but to pleasing men.” A French study — since retracted for its dubious methodology, but fun all the same — had a group of 19-year-old women approach men with a pretend survey. When the women were wearing heels, 83% of men spent three to four minutes answering the questions; when the women wore flats, only 47% would stop for as long. 

More reliably, a 2020 study by Comenius University, Slovakia, found that when women imagined an interaction with an attractive man their preference for high heels steeply increased, compared with an imagined interaction with an unattractive man. Wearing high heels was a mating strategy. Radomir Masaryk, professor of social psychology at the same university, has since counter-argued that a younger sample of respondents would have brought a very different result, noting that even the 2020 study saw 38% of women reporting that they never wear heels, with 45% only wearing them once a month.

Masaryk’s investigation — this time involving college undergraduate-age women — suggests that young women will still wear a heel, not as a means of beautification so much as a way to meet the perceived dress code of formal occasions, including weddings, important family gatherings, red carpet events and the like. In other words, there has been a generational shift in attitudes away from high heels as in some way talismanic of the erotic, and towards thinking of them as a form of specialist dress, akin perhaps to a tuxedo for men.

“For older women — in their 30s, 40s and 50s — I think it’s likely there is still some association between wearing high heels and dating. But younger women are either focused on comfort, or intent on dressing outside the mainstream, and see heels as part of the mainstream,” argues Masaryk. “They also tend to want to deliberately discourage unwanted attention, and arguably wearing heels would go against that.”

“It’s hard to imagine a man wearing something so impractical and uncomfortable basically to appeal to women.”

Rachel Jones, author of “Shoe Design”

Even the accessibility of pornography and the normalizing of its motifs — which might be expected to underscore the association between high heels and sexiness for those younger, impressionable generations that have grown up with immediate access to its imagery — may actually be bolstering the case against the high heel. If the high heel is still perceived as the shoe of potency, rank and decorum, is it losing its reputation as the shoe of fetish and sex?

“Maybe it’s because that association is to the fore now that a lot of women, and especially younger women, are, more or less subconsciously, put off high heels,” argues Rachel Jones, lecturer at the University of Westminster, trend forecaster and author of Shoe Design. “There is that highly-polished look pushed by social media and reality TV — the straightened hair, lip filler, fake lashes and a designer handbag — in which high heels still seem to have a place. That’s a desirable look for some women.”

“But I think that trope is seen by a lot of other women as unappealingly trashy, a bit tarty,” adds Jones. “High heels have an admirable sculptural quality as objects. They can be works of art, in a way. But perhaps they have come to represent a pandering to the male gaze. That’s fine for the bedroom. But in public they cut against 21st century ideas of equality and female independence. It’s hard to imagine a man wearing something so impractical and uncomfortable basically to appeal to women.” 

The double standard can still be seen in the more traditional professions — law and finance, for example, and in corporate or hospitality jobs in which a uniform is worn. Here the heel is still considered an expression of smartness, competence and professionalism, though a University of North Carolina study of how people evaluate women in a variety of work settings, the only variable being whether they were or were not wearing heels, concluded that actually those wearing flats were deemed more capable by men and women alike.

Kristen Stewart takes off her high heels at the screening of "BlacKkKlansman" during the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 14, 2018 in Cannes, France
Kristen Stewart removing her high heels in the middle of the Cannes red carpet in 2018.
Stephane Cardinale – Corbis via Getty Images

Strangely, many airlines still insist that its female flight attendants wear, if not stilettos exactly, then certainly a mid-height heeled shoe — precisely the kind of impractical choice for a job that requires standing most of the time, and on those individuals whose mobility you might want to maximize in case of emergency. Last year, the Spanish airline Iberia trumpeted that its new uniform allowed its female attendants to wear sneakers — but only during take-off and landing. The rest of the time heels between three and six inches would be expected. 

If the association between high heels and sexiness is in flux, perhaps the connection with professionalism — the high heel as power dressing — is no less certain. The culture is changing, albeit about as slowly as it’s possible to run in heels: In 2016, one woman made international headlines after her employer, the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers, sent her home without pay for refusing to wear a two-to-four inch heel, in accordance with its dress policy for women. That brought a change in U.K. law making it illegal to require women to wear heels at work. And yet in 2021, also in the U.K., a nightclub was called out for refusing entry to a group of women for not wearing heels, while men were allowed to wear sneakers.

Yet the high heel is not dead yet. If women burned their bras, more metaphorically than literally, in the 1970s to make a point about their oppression, sartorial and otherwise, it doesn’t seem as though the high heel is being rejected in the same way, even though Julia Roberts, Kristen Stewart and, this year, Jennifer Lawrence have each made a pointed refusal to adhere to the Cannes Film Festival’s high-heel mandate.

With the dust of the pandemic settling, people may be going out less often than they were, but when they do they want some pizzazz: sales of Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin, the two powerhouse high heel brands, are said to be healthy, even if wearing their products may not be. Others say that the proliferation of sneakers means a heel renaissance can’t be too far away. 

Some women will be ready. Remarkably, there are those so dedicated to their heels that they even have botox filler injected into the balls of their feet, and between the joints of their toes, just so they can stand to wear them that little bit longer.

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