Posted by: cialci | October 23, 2012

Walk a Half-Step in Her Shoes

When I get involved in a book or a film, my first question is always, “What about the clothes?”  I love period pieces; I am a lover of the BBC Masterpiece Theater melodramas, particularly those from the 1970s with such stars as Diana Rigg and Jeremy Brett. The stories are fascinating, the dialogue excellent, but for me, it is almost always about the clothing. I study every button and flounce.  I look at the tailoring to see if it is perfect. Hats, gloves, small bags, shoes . . . nothing escapes my scrutiny.  Several years ago, I read a fascinating article about how Victorian clothing for women was all about keeping them constrained. I knew about corsets and of course, long, almost unmanageable skirts with voluminous petticoats beneath, but one thing I was surprised to read is that women in these times wore shoes that were a size too small.  Of course, we assume they did this in order to appear to have tiny feet, but the article I read (I have not had any luck finding it again, but if I do, I will post it) was written by a feminist who posited that in fact, the shoes were too tight and too small in order to keep women from taking long, quick strides. Women were meant to take small, dainty steps, and the shoes forced them to do this. But she took it further. She supposed that the shoes were created by men for women for the purpose of keeping them close to home and under control. I had to think about this. At first, it sounded ridiculous.  But then I went into my closet and put on a pair of shoes that I cannot wear because they are so painful.  I kept them on my feet for an hour, just walking around the house, and I realized that there was no way I could keep them on, and certainly I could not wear them out of the house to run errands. Are shoes something that can be considered positively diabolical?  Look at the shoes some of our modern celebrities wear.  Lady Gaga teeters out on stage in 10-inch platforms shaped like claws.  Women wear gorgeous designer heels as high as 5 inches, knowing that they make our legs look better. It certainly does slow us down. And the top shoe designers are men. There are women who will wear anything for fashion; as we age, we become more sensible and realize that perhaps comfort is the way to go. But I never, until I read this article, considered ladies’ shoes a means of restricting their freedom.  Now when I watch a film about the Victorian era, I will have one more thing to watch for: how do the women walk?


  1. That is so interesting. I found this great pair of red shoes at a second hand store. They were fabulous and a size too small. I bought them anyway, but never wore them. I wonder how I could have survived in the 1800s without my clogs…

    • Ha, Laura! As I read the article, I said to myself, “Well . . . just go UP a size, for Pete’s sake!” The author addressed that, too. She said that women’s hands and feet were prized for being small and delicate and no “lady” would request a shoe size bigger than what she was told to buy! How crazy is that?! I really have to find that article! I didn’t read it online, I read it in a fashion magazine many years ago.

  2. It’s really fascinating how fashion as a tool for subjugation can stretch across continents and cultures. In China, noble women practiced foot binding, where from the earliest possible age, mothers would break and constrict their daughters’ feet in bandages so that by the time they reached adulthood, walking was a very limited endeavor. Not only were tiny–approximately 4 inches on average–feet considered beautiful, but the practice was an expression of luxury; the woman was so well-kept that she did not even need to walk. Meanwhile in Japan, a lady’s kimono operated like a tight, ankle-length pencil skirt, restricting the length of her steps the same way that Victorian ladies’ shoes did. Furthermore, their high platform sandals were an added challenge to the task of putting one foot in front of the other. Now, the question is why such a fuss about female feet? One could argue that it was to keep them in line–a woman who cannot run, cannot therefore sneak out of the house to cheat on her husband.

  3. Hi, I’ve just read this after trying to find out why Victorian shoes are so small. Your post reminded me of what Foucault writes about Victorian ‘control’ and the fact that with industrialisation, a lot of subconscious (and conscious) controls were put on people to restrict how they conducted their lives. This is because the factories had to control their workers. Unfortunately women saw the brunt of this and this could impact their feet and the shoes they wear.

    The other thing I wondered was how women actually forced their feet into shoes of that size. It’s not like the shoes are ‘one size down’ – in many cases they are half the size of our feet today. Given the feet have so many bones in them – you would have thought this was impossible. I wondered whether it came from nutrition, and the fact that their bodies didn’t have to take as much weight, and as a result the bones didn’t have to be so strong.

    Would love your thoughts! I’m just about to write something about this on my blog too (which is all about feet and shoewear).

  4. What a fascinating observation about women’s shoes! Reading your post (especially the part about Lady Gaga and designer heels in a male dominated fashion industry) inspired me to do some research on the history of the heeled shoe. I have personally witnessed many comments of complaint from women about the pain of their heels, or the annoyance of feeling like they have to wear them on certain occasions. I’ve even internalized this knowledge, like on a night out in New York– I know and accept that I will have to struggle to keep up with the group while wearing my stilettos. Even at my father’s wedding last Fall, they had a basket of flip-flops on the dance floor! The pain and limiting mobility of this footwear is totally recognized, and yet I would have felt strange NOT wearing my heels to the wedding! What I found fascinating, is that the historical use of heeled shoes serves to dismantle the notion that men create these shoes to constrain women. In fact, heeled shoes used to be made for and worn by men. Originally, they were worn by male equestrians in 15th century Persia. A curator from the Bata Shoe Museum explains that heels acted as more of an instrument of war, assisting soldiers standing in their stirrups. Once the shoes made their way to Europe they became a symbol of power. They added height, which even today is thought of to be a desirable and “powerful” attribute in a man. In the 18th century, Louis XIV loved heels, and he was only 5’4 so that very much makes sense. The shift from heels being a power thing, to an “attractive for women” thing didn’t come until the French Revolution.

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