We’re used to talking about high heels in terms of fashion, fantasy and even feminism. But we’re somewhat less accustomed to speaking about them as business etiquette and workplace obligation – even though, to many women, that’s exactly what they represent.
High heels at work are necessary, says Japan's labour minister
While many wear high heels for fun and self expression, countless others wear them because of industry standards, or even because their boss says they have to. But why?
The long-running to-wear-or-not-to-wear debate was resurrected this week when Japanese actor and writer Yumi Ishikawa submitted a petition to her country’s labour ministry asking for a ban on employer-mandated high heels. Her efforts have been bolstered by a clever hashtag: #KuToo is a pun on the Japanese words for shoe (kutsu) and pain (kutsuu), with a nod to the #MeToo movement thrown in for good measure. At last count, the petition had amassed more than 23,000 signatures. But Japan’s health and labour minister responded by defending workplaces that require women to wear high heels, describing the practice as “necessary and appropriate”.
High heels have long been seen as a female equivalent to the businessman’s necktie. They’re a sartorial accessory that, when worn in a business setting, send a message of formality and professionalism. Nowhere has this been more true than in the highly gendered corporate culture of Japan, but the association is global. From Sheryl Sandberg to Theresa May, high heels have been a key component of female power-dressing for decades. John T Molloy’s bestselling Dress for Success books of the 1970s cautioned American women never to go without their precious high-heeled pumps if they wanted to be taken seriously in the workplace.
Some may not see why this would be a problem. After all, plenty of women not only choose to wear high heels, but passionately defend that choice. The word “empowerment” may even make an appearance. And besides, if men are often required to wear a jacket and tie, what’s wrong with a female equivalent?
But no item of men’s clothing causes such hampered movement or physical pain. Indeed, high heels fit into a long history of women’s physical repression and mandated suffering.
High heels have changed dramatically since they made their debut, on the feet of 16th-century Persian cavalrymen, before migrating west to the European armies and royal courts. While high-heeled shoes were standard fare for both men and women in Europe throughout the 18th century, they took a tumble with the arrival of the French revolution. After Marie Antoinette was guillotined in a pair of high heels, the style fell out of fashion. Shoes went flat, and silhouettes slimmed down. When high heels returned to the feet of the fashionable, a curious gender divide began to widen: by the 20th century, as women gained more freedom, high heels were thought of as “women’s shoes” exclusively (with a brief glam rock interlude in the 1970s). They also became higher, thinner and harder to walk in than ever before.
If wearing high heels in the workplace was just about increasing height, more people would wear platforms. Men, who also experience professional benefits from seeming taller, would wear them too. But they do not, because high heels are a way to communicate femininity. They were considered such a vital part of women’s professional dress in the 1970s and 1980s precisely because the very act of working, having a job and seeking success and power was seen as inherently masculine. The high heels were a necessary counterpoint to the manly notions of ambition and wanting to control your own financial destiny.
Rather than reconfiguring the workplace to welcome women, societies across the globe have consistently focused on reconfiguring women to fit into a workplace that wasn’t built for them. Magazine articles and advertising still focus on what women should do, say, wear and buy to be worthy of professional respect. Even terms such as “women’s empowerment” and “lean in” place the emphasis on women needing to find, do or become something rather than the need to restructure a system that routinely hurts them.
It’s appropriate that #KuToo alludes to #MeToo, because both causes revolve around choice and consent. Both movements are about a new generation of women taking a hard look at the suffering they’ve long taken for granted, and saying: maybe it doesn’t have to be like this.
• Summer Brennan is a journalist and author of High Heel