ON A scale of one to 10, where 10 is president George Bush vomiting into the lap of the Japanese prime minister at a banquet back in 1992, Julia Gillard slipping out of her shoes and taking a tumble in India this week should barely register as a diplomatic embarrassment.
Yet to read some of the commentary online and especially some of the YouTube videos of the incident, you would think she had disgraced the nation.
Instead of vigorous scrutiny of Gillard’s ground-breaking visit, which included a controversial plan to sell our uranium to this non-NPT signatory nation, much of the country, including the media, is obsessed by – you guessed it – her shoes.
Gillard herself made a wry comment about how heels are something men in the public eye don’t have to worry about. Female commentators around the world backed her up. (In the wake of Gillard’s much-noted ”sexism and misogyny” speech last week, there is now international interest in what she does, so that even Diane Sawyer, anchor of the US ABC network main news program, commented sympathetically on the spill.) Some in the media even reminded us of her previous stumble in Sydney a few weeks back when, again, her heels were to blame. Others could not resist harking back to when the PM lost a blue shoe while being hustled into her car by police during a disturbance on Australia Day in Canberra.
This is not just one of those damned if you do, doomed if you don’t issues for female politicians and other women in leadership roles. Wearing heels can be uncomfortable, and makes you vulnerable to tripping, stumbling or sinking into wet grass; not wearing heels invites the fashion police to denounce you as frumpy and letting the country down, in a sartorial manner of speaking.
So few women leaders will go flat-footed; most of them – like most other women – want to be stylish and, let’s face it, a bit of height in the heel gives a spring to our step and makes us feel more glamorous. But the choices for women today are not just between heels and flats; the height of the heel is the issue, and they have never, ever been higher. Shoe shops today offer footwear with heels that are so absurdly high women cannot actually walk in them.
Isn’t it strange that during an era when women are supposedly economically liberated and politically empowered, fashion is doing its best to subvert this? Just this week, a Booz and Company report found that Australian women were the most economically empowered of the 128 countries surveyed. Yet, the female executive or company director wanting a pair of ultra-glamorous Christian Louboutin shoes with their trademark red soles would find herself obliged to totter around on 160-millimetre (6½ inches) heels.
And this is high fashion. You can find plenty of examples of Kardashian-like fetishistic footwear – the ”$100 hooker shoes”, as one fashionista puts it – where the heels are 8, 11 or even 14 inches high. Utterly impossible to walk in, in other words.
”It’s like foot binding, except women are doing it to themselves,” says Kirstie Clements, former editor-in-chief of Australian Vogue. She points out that Louboutin’s original shoe, the classic Pigalle pump, ”made you walk sexily, looked beautiful and was comfortable”. They had 85-millimetre heels. Today, Louboutin’s lowest heel is 100 millimetres.
These shoes are uncomfortable (”They cripple you before you even leave the house,” says Clements) and are likely to cause injury. In fact, the models at Alexander McQueen’s 2010 spring show caused a sensation when they refused to walk down the catwalk wearing his Alien shoes. Several of them had already been hurt, one had required knee surgery, and they decided to draw a line.
So if women whose job descriptions require them to don extreme outfits are refusing to wear such shoes, why are ordinary women embracing them with such enthusiasm? You cannot walk the streets of the CBD, around Parliament House in Canberra or into any large white-collar workplace without seeing women in these sky-high heels. They look uncomfortable but, more than that, they are not even attractive because these women are no longer walking, they are teetering: they look unstable, vulnerable, disempowered. Totally at odds, in other words, with the image they are presumably trying to project as they go about their high-powered jobs.
Why would a woman who is trying to be taken seriously as a manager, an executive, a director or a politician wear footwear that belongs in the bordello? Long gone are the days, back in the 1980s, when women adopted power suits with huge shoulder-pads and often added ties in an effort to blend into the workplace. Today women want to be feminine as they make their way in the world, but what is on offer from the men who make shoes – and they are all men: Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Louboutin – is neither flattering nor womanly. ”It has turned into misogyny,” says Clements.
And it is in stark contrast to the way the classic women designers worked. Iconic French couturier Coco Chanel liberated women from corsets, gave them loose and comfortable clothes, made from jersey and other forgiving fabrics, and decreed that pants suits were modish.
Similarly, Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian designer who migrated to Paris via New York, made clothes that gave women the freedom to move around. She gave us overalls, jumpsuits, mix-and-match separates, wraparound dresses – and wedge shoes.
The wedge shoe is back in style and does provide a feasible, and fashionable, alternative to towering heels. They are comfortable and they are stable, although they are not foolproof. The shoe the Prime Minister lost on Australia Day, and which nearly found itself offered for auction on eBay, was a blue suede wedge.
Nevertheless, they are a safer bet than anything else that’s on offer and not just because of their comfort. Many of today’s shoes, with their extreme heels, their platforms and their peekaboo toes, once were fantasy items. You might find them in comic books – Betty Boop or Jessica Rabbit – but they were more commonly worn by transvestites as performance enhancements. ”I don’t think girls today realise it, but they are actually in drag,” says Kirstie Clements.
These were items of footwear that were never meant for real life, let alone everyday wear. Now, the fact they are in so many women’s business wardrobes is a cause for worry among those of us who keep track of women’s equality.
In fact, I think you could almost posit a reverse correlation between the height of women’s heels and their chances of achieving true equality. It’s hard to think and perform when you are in constant pain.
And this poses a dilemma for women in leadership positions: how to look good (as women are – still – required to) while not hindering their ability to do their jobs effectively.
The Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, has abandoned the stylish stilettos she was renowned for as Governor of Queensland and now mostly wears lower, thicker heels. She undoubtedly recognised that it would be difficult to be taken seriously in her job – reviewing the troops and so on – if she could not walk with ease and authority.
Julia Gillard, too, has had to be pragmatic; she generally adopts a judicious compromise between style and utility by wearing low heels, but even these let her down this week. It must be galling for her, constantly walking a political tightrope, to have to give a second’s thought to what she puts on her feet.