Another week, another instance of a woman’s clothing being policed: this time it’s Nicola Thorp, the temp who was sent home from a corporate workplace by her employers because she wouldn’t wear heels.
The heel/flat debate is founded in a peculiar logic that doesn’t bear scrutiny. Somehow, wearing heels has long been considered the same as “smartening yourself up”; it’s traditionally expected of all women attending a posh dinner, a work do or a wedding, and many of us happily fall into line because those heels, honestly, can be gorgeous. But every flat shoe is not a Croc, and the experience of standing in agonising stilettos at a party, while another woman breezes past in elegant flats, does not feel so glamorous. Flat shoes can be minimalist and streamlined, or embellished and intricate: the only thing they’re necessarily missing is that heel, responsible for putting pressure on our knees and bruising the balls of our feet, straining our tendons and causing lower back pain.
So wearing comfortable shoes, as anyone with half a brain can grasp, is not synonymous with being scruffy – just look at the ballet flat, worn by some of the most famously stylish women of the last century. In 1956, Brigitte Bardot asked the Parisian ballet outfitters Repetto to make her some light, comfortable outdoor shoes for her role in And God Created Woman; these became the Repetto “Cendrillon” ballet pumps. Audrey Hepburn, in the same year, started wearing similar shoes designed by Salvatore Ferragamo: the “Audrey Ballet Shoe” has a negligible 1.5cm heel and a thin strap across the foot. Kate Moss is another fan, and caused a major trend for ballet flats when she started wearing them in 2003; like those before her, she showed us how light and easy a beautiful shoe could be.
It’s not that heels are no longer desirable: it’s that women are exercising their right to choose
Then there are loafers, the slightly more formal cousins of ballet shoes – a little more detailed, but equally effortless to wear. Gucci, a brand with a famous history in men’s loafers, offers women’s varieties that are backless, embroidered or printed, as alluring and irresistible as coloured sweets in a glass jar. Nicholas Kirkwood’s loafers, on the other hand, are tapered and impeccably tasteful, in tactile grained leather. How anyone could claim that these shoes are less smart or desirable than high heels is a mystery.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the “comfortable shoe” was a sneery euphemism; the fashion of the time was for ambitious, sky-high heels, and flats were a begrudged basic rather than a covetable item. But the tide has decidedly turned, and when in recent years we started paying attention to dressed-up flats again, we discovered that the options are almost endless. Scan the fashion-week front row recently and you’ll have seen pristine white sneakers, immaculate brogues and covetable mules. There are Oxford lace-ups, of which Katharine Hepburn and Diane Keaton are two notable icons; they made them look nonchalantly, boyishly sexy. And there is the espadrille, once championed by Grace Kelly – it’s a shoe that still conjures up images of drinking espresso on a cobbled street, or champagne on a yacht.
It’s not that heels are no longer desirable: it’s that women are exercising their right to choose. Last year, the Cannes Film Festival put itself on the wrong side of this debate when staff turned away a group of women from the premiere of Carol, because they weren’t wearing heels – resulting in a storm of criticism. So at this year’s festival, the no-fucks-giving Susan Sarandon posed on Wednesday in flats. They were black, they were smart, and they were pointed in more ways than one.
There is something oppressive and misogynist about the idea that a well-dressed woman must wear killer heels; Nicola Thorp wouldn’t stand for it, and neither would Sarandon. And since flat shoes are as beautiful as their towering counterparts, with as rich and stylish a heritage – they’re looking less and less like a sensible back-up, and more like the obvious choice.