The thousand year curse on Chinese Han women's feet
The last empress of China born in 1835 was spared the horror of foot-binding thanks to her royal Manchu lineage1. This was a mainstream Chinese Han practice at the time where women from good families had their feet bent over, crushed and bound from childhood to keep them looking small and dainty to adulthood, hobbling their locomotion for life. Empress Ci-Xi was instrumental in banning foot-binding in 1902. She couldn’t bear to see the bound feet of her female assistants and it wasn’t just the influence of her European friends. Foot binding it was decreed “harms creatures and violates Nature’s intentions’ …” but it was not easy to ban a thousand-year practice all of a sudden and the Empress started the process. She herself wore square cut toed, often elevated shoes with silk socks (with a sort of wooden platform heel) and as empress wore each pair only once (presumably per day), so she needed a plentiful supply of shoes and probably left innumerable cast offs for whoever disposed of them.
High heeled shoes in Europe originate from 15th century Persian riding culture where it was easier to perch such shoes on stirrups2. This culture, brought to Europe spread among male aristocrats at first including King Louis XIV of France in 1673, the so-called Sun King. Like so many elements of what’s now regarded as feminine fashion, high heels were originally, masculine.
CiXi, last Empress of China
"My feet are killing me" they say in Britain - it's usually the women complaining about their shoes
Women’s shoes are sexist for two reasons. The more overtly feminine heeled types can be uncomfortable and can damage women’s feet, a bit like what Chinese foot binding did, compared to more practical men’s shoes. But conversely, it is currently frowned on for men to wear these or similarly often more practical or interesting shoes including high heels in public, given a wealth of designs available for women’s shoes but much less for men’s shoes and also given that most women could easily get away with wearing any men’s shoes they fancied in public with no funny looks whatsoever!
Two contradictory aspects, only one of which could be truly solved, because dangerous yet beautiful shoes as worn by women will probably not disappear and there happens to be a reason for something similar to foot-binding but at a less tortuous level.
Women’s shoes and feet have long been regarded as pointers to their embodied beauty as future mothers or queens and as signs of wealth, culture and distinction. As befitting their figures and cultural standing, it was or is often regarded that women’s feet should appear more delicate and smaller than equivalent men’s ones and this attitude was certainly held by my mother and her sister. For the Chinese, bound feet, nicely wrapped were like the petals of a lotus with many similar allusions and there are echoes of this attitude in stories like Cinderella. The glass shoes or slippers fit her alone, not her ugly sisters who had bigger feet. What trouble the prince had finding a woman who could fit the perfect shoes!
With regards to comfort, things have only got worse for women’s feet with the introduction of modern type steeled stiletto (dagger) heels from the late 1950s3. Although even the 50s housewife (they did exist then) had a reputation for wearing heels (only in places like posters and Cinema, not necessarily in real life), they were far more comfortable than taller stilettos that came later and such shoes can really damage feet. The design of these dagger heels ever higher was authored by a clique of male engineers, who could enjoy their looks on women’s feet without having to wear them. It was pushing shoe designs beyond traditional boundaries, governed by new materials for strength and lightness. It’s hardly surprising that over 70% of acute sufferers from bunions can be women4 though this is exacerbated by heels rather than directly caused by them. Having said this, young girls subject to pointy shoes can also develop pointy feet that are not as nature intended. Much less surprising are ankle problems caused by high heels including platform shoes5 where the victims are mostly female. Most women are aware of this and are advised not to overuse uncomfortable footwear. Picture an advert with a young woman wearing a platformed heel on one foot and stroking the other foot, as the caption for a painkiller drug Solpadeine stated: “Some pain is worth it, some isn’t”, this advert from the 1990s would now be unacceptable but implies that beautiful shoes can cause an acceptable degree of pain unlike say a headache that should be stamped out.
One aspect of sexism apart from extreme shoes once designed by men is the way some employers may force their female employees to wear less than comfortable heels (even to this day where such stipulations may be toppled, unwritten coercion may continue). This could apply in corporate environments, hospitality as in airlines or in the entertainment sector.
Yes, the sexist aspects of women’s shoe design are often acknowledged by wearers who may launch legal challenges against their employers.
But women’s shoes also include a huge range of other, safer designs such as gladiator and fishermen’s sandals, Mary Janes and shoes with T-bar straps. ”Sensible shoes” is mainly implicated for ladies footwear given many designs that may be mildly toxic.
Gender free feminine designs are now more accessible to men
For a long time, heeled shoes have been seen as feminine and the dubious joys of stilettos, block heels, wedge heels, kitten heels, platform heels and many others have been denied to men, unless they are say, cowboys. There are signs that more men are taking an interest in heels outside a drag context6 but for the moment they are just signs given a rising tide of gender-neutral culture promoting feminine shoes for men7. Fortunately, the modern man can engage in experimenting in or embracing practical shoes designed for women such as ankle boots and T-straps given a dearth of such designs for men.
The problem with typical, closed men’s shoes allowing for an unverified fact that men may sweat a little more is that they are more prone to athlete’s foot and similar fungal diseases, especially if they work in stuffy indoor environments as most city men do. Women’s shoes with a more open structure allow far more breathability with open toes, peep toes and lots of strappy designs. Besides, women look after their feet much better than men. Men would benefit from wearing T-straps (as young boys for hundreds of years wore) or ballet pump style loafers but these are scarcely marketed for men.
Some shoe companies are waking up. US brand Softstar shoes8 sells ungendered shoes that may be better preferred by either sex. Their ballet flats dubbed Ballerine flats are available for men to buy and compete with equally good, similarly priced ballerina flat brands like Tieks. But Softstar ballerines are officially for men as well unlike Tieks, even if women prefer to buy them. Softstar also does Mary Jane shoes, a style not now available to men (historically they were), dubbed Merry Janes. Mary Jane shoes were very popular with boys for hundreds of years until well after the Second World War and it’s high time these design elements were incorporated into current male shoe designs. I’m ready to invest into a pair of Softstar Ballerine flats (as a man) and will consider Merry Janes later.
In the meantime, the gnashing of teeth about the unavailability of practical or for that matter, heeled or delicate shoes for men may get toned down as increasing numbers of braver men don feminine styles in public given many women’s shoes are effectively gender neutral. Women have been wearing “men’s” shoes for years, if only because they may not find them in their own size if they’ve larger feet (and women’s foot sizes are increasing compared to the past). Fashion trends are changing faster than feet and we all deserve shoes that can be practical as well as enjoyable to wear (if only for a short time).
So, I sign off as a shoe hunter and collector and they also retail well on sites like EBay. We can all contribute to fighting the worst aspects sexism in shoes.
- Jung Chang 2014, Vintage (Penguin books): Empress Dowager Cixi, 907 pages (ebook).