A collection of extreme stilettos tells a very uncomfortable story about the high heels many women totter around in every day, says Gloria Dawson
The front cover of the magazine folded against the Tube train window says “FETISH”. The word is printed across a black strip which masks a woman’s eyes.
Blonde, with red lips and nails, she is part of “an erotic fantasy”, created by David Lynch and Christian Louboutin. The article promotes a collaboration by the cult film director and the cult shoe designer for Paris fashion week.
The first photo takes up nearly a whole spread. Like many disturbing images, on first sight, you don’t notice much unusual about it. It shows a woman’s legs in stilettos, slightly blurred with their motion and that of the camera, crossing a rug through a shaft of light. The stilettos are black, with Louboutin’s trademark red sole. That’s all I notice at first. Then my eye travel down the disembodied legs again.
The back foot is bent over. The toes must be at 90 degrees to the floor. They are pointe shoes with heels. But they remind me not so much of ballet shoes as the bound feet of Chinese women – up until the early 20th century, when the practice was discontinued, a perfect three-inch foot was known as a ‘Golden Lotus’ – supposedly pretty in silk shoes, but not practical for walking or standing.
Puzzled, I turn over the page. How is the model able to walk? Do we not see the rest of her body because she is being held up? The virtue of the “fetish ballerina” shoes, according to the caption, is that they “tense and elongate the leg dramatically”. But they do not allow much movement.
The same shoes, with no uppers this time but long leather straps, criss-crossed up the leg, dominate the next picture. The seated, nude model is in semi-darkness. The light on the shoes casts a shadow on the wall. The straps and the silhouette of the foot bent round recall foot binding again.
The poses in the six photographs featured are all passive, with the exception, perhaps, of the first one, where the pointes threaten to give way at any moment and leave the woman sprawling on the floor. Another particularly vulnerable shot is of a woman naked from the waist down, half standing, half kneeling on a chair. Her buttocks are exposed to us, and the soles of the shoes of what look, again, like ballet shoes, are made of mesh, so we can see naked soles of the feet. She looks ready not only to be penetrated, but also to be pierced.
There are many other unsettling things about the article. One of the virtues of the project, apparently, is that the models, ‘Nouka’ and ‘Baby’ were handpicked (the article uses the word) by Lynch from Paris’ Crazy Horse Revue, a fairly upmarket strip joint. One step closer than fashion models, it is implied, to real prostitutes (and the project’s use of the stereotype of the permanently aroused, red-lipped blonde is unremarkable). Lynch’s detached presentation of female characters in his films, which I feel has become increasingly unsettling, could be the subject of another whole article.
Louboutin says, in typically meaningless fashion-speak, that “a shoe should be an extension of the woman”. What does he mean? That it should be fused to her body (shades of foot binding again)? Or that the woman’s body, carried into its logical extension of the shoe, should be rendered powerless, stationary, posed? The writers, Charlotte Casiraghi and Rhiannon Harries, buy this, paraphrasing Louboutin to say: “The perfect shoe – fetish or otherwise – should become almost an organic part of the body.” Yet, elsewhere in the article, the impracticality and strangeness of the shoes are praised. This seems contradictory.
The journalists do not acknowledge (most probably have not noticed) Louboutin’s historical debt to the torture of women. Nor do they touch more than briefly on the proposition that this project could be controversial. “The jury is – and has always been – out on whether dominatrix dressing is an authentically empowering act for a woman,” they say. Since none of the women featured in the article appear to be able to walk more than a few steps, I doubt they’d make particularly effective dominatrixes. In practical fact, the most dominating thing one of these women could do is take the stilettos off and poke the voyeur with them, hard. Or better still, throw them in the bin and stomp out of the room. Now that’s empowerment.
The article continues: “But one only had to experience the excited reactions of the female guests… to see this was less about ethics than aesthetics.” These shoes are, in Louboutin’s words, at once “an extension of the woman” and “not made to be worn”. The woman, then, is an aesthetic object, and this view has a correlating ethic: that in order to be beautiful, women need to be stunned, rendered immobile. And these passive female poses in art, film, fashion, and pornography is all-pervasive.
How subjective, or rather how widespread, is this fantasy? The article suggests that the answer is very. “A quick Google search for ‘foot fetish’ returns almost 12,000,000 hits.” And, according to a recent study by the University of Bologna, 47% of men and women said feet were their main sexual preference among body parts. Again, the article doesn’t provide much more evidence for these photographs being representative of many people’s sexual fantasies, other than Lynch and Louboutin.
“Dita von Teese and designer Diane von Furstenberg were among the last to leave.” Two women, one a burlesque star and one a fashion designer, liked it. Case closed. I expect von Teese would argue something along the lines that these shoes are for role-playing, for stepping out of our ordinary lives and being dangerous, politically incorrect and break taboos. And to some extent, I would agree with her.
But this event, like fashion, like the art world, is not about consensus, but also subjective interpretation and critical analysis. The bedroom may not be the place for political disagreements, but an art gallery, a newspaper article, should be. I would have liked to have heard a voice of dissent, or at least unease, from the swathes of blue velvet. Perhaps the voice of someone who recalls the full disturbing implications of Lynch’s film of the same title.
It could be argued that while Chinese women for centuries had no choice in the binding of their feet, none of us have to wear Louboutin’s shoes (chance would be a fine thing to be able to afford the luxury of such torture), or even high heels in general. Yet the approval of this exhibition just adds to the canon of images which present high-heeled footwear as the natural choice for women (the most recent example that springs to mind is the woman in the rather sickly statue of lovers soon to be unveiled at St Pancras Station).
Do I find these photos arousing? No, not really. The shoes detract attention from the women; as it was in China, the feet, and their nature-defying performance, are the stars. I have always found it rather hard to understand why some women (myself, occasionally, included) wear shoes that cause even mild pain and discomfort, that bend our feet and move their centre of gravity from the heel to the ball of the foot, that render us liable to trip and pull muscles and break bones, or at the very least ladder tights, forcing us to run into the chemist to buy another pair, then go to the toilet to put them on.
In high heels, I have always rather felt like I was cross-dressing: that is, learning to impersonate a woman. High heels are not the only article of clothing that requires the development of certain skills – think about knotting ties, or ironing shirts and trousers. But they are, I think, the only common item of clothing that requires the skill of pain management. Of breaking in, then suffering and sitting down – not to mention gel pads. High heels, unlike other shoes, seem to me to possess the ability to break the feet in rather than (as is normal with all shoes) vice versa.
Louboutin’s ‘extreme’, ‘unwearable’ collection implies that the high heels we normally see on the catwalks, in the shops and in the street are ordinary. That compared to these beauties, walking in other high heels is, or should be a piece of cake. It presents a challenge to the female viewer: how high could you go?
Interestingly, it also acknowledges the impracticality inherent in all such fashions. The Lynch/Louboutin collection shows us that pride can go before a fall; or rather that in order to be becoming in the fall, you must be passive, you must accept that you will trip, that you cannot stand up, that your only purpose is to be laid naked across a sofa. Walking in high heels, rather like sex itself, often seems rather too destination-bound. You are always looking for the place where you can flop, let go and relax. This collection is the stiletto carried to its logical conclusion, displaying the danger of every well-trained totter on the pavement on the way to work. In rendering ordinary high heels practical and sensible by comparison, Lynch and Louboutin seem also to propose that we have nothing to complain about in ordinary high-heels. At the same time, the collection underlines the impracticality of the fashion in general.
Some might say that as this is fashion, we should not take its portrayal of women too seriously. But this is fashion as high art, an interdisciplinary collaboration by two men who take their work very seriously indeed. As do the punters, “poring over” the photographs on display in the “sober elegance” of the proceedings. There is nothing wrong with us poring over them too. And drawing our own conclusions.