Heroes in Heels: Why Are Female Stars Always In Stilettos?

Sometime around 40,000 years ago, people began wrapping thick fabric around their aching feet and voila! — shoes were born. But between then and now, much has changed with footwear. In many ways, shoes have been stripped of their practicality and have a deeper history than just protection for a vulnerable part of the body. Like countless other fashion trends, societal pressure on women has had a powerful influence on female footwear. And like all trends and fads, women on the silver screen are often poster-girls for what is considered to be the "quintessential" woman of the time. 

A modern-day woman’s shoe choice (a choice much riskier than a man’s) can jeopardize how everyone perceives her. To work in a Shawshank quote here: 

I mean, seriously, how often do you really look at a man's shoes?

A Brief History Of Shoes

As civilization advanced and brought forth different cultural ideologies (specifically: gender roles), things started to change. It’s no secret women have long been the oppressed and objectified gender, so it should come as no surprise that even something as simple as footwear has impacted how governing powers control women. These kinds of ancient beliefs have had a long-lasting effects on everything — women's rights, women's bodies, women's shoes — everything

The Ancient Greeks had special sandals specifically to mark prostitutes. Platformed clogs were given to women during the Middle Ages to make them literally immobile, in case they were to act promiscuously. On the other hand, heels were sometimes taken away from pregnant women to avoid accidents that could cause miscarriages or abortions. The Chinese tradition of bound feet stemmed from the belief that careful stepping tightened vaginal muscles. Many religious groups, specifically the Puritans, believed women only wore heels in order to seduce men.

The more panic and conversation that revolved around a woman’s footwear, the more they became associated with sex. And as male and female footwear continued to differ, men’s evolved to become more practical, while women’s became more ornate— thus further exemplifying the idea that men needed to be useful and women needed to be appealing.

Hollywood In Heels

By the time of the 20th century, heels had been established as the de facto symbol of women's sexuality. Think of Marilyn Monroe, who would reportedly shave a bit off her heels to give herself a sexy wobble. In the '50s, Christian Dior and designer Roger Vivier created “the needle,” or what would become known as the stiletto. 

By the time the '80s rolled around, the heel was seen less as a restrictive accessory and more of a statement on feminine power. Unfortunately, with this kind of statement comes expectation. Heels have long been controversially associated with women’s work attire, because a woman isn't considered "dressed up" unless they're donning the ultimate symbol of femininity.

Amanda Seyfried in 'In Time' [Source: 20th Century Fox]

Amanda Seyfried in 'In Time' [Source: 20th Century Fox]

Part of what makes the image of Hollywood so enticing is how glamorous and unrealistic stars — often female stars — are made to look. Modern-day thinking has encouraged a lot of backlash against these standards, but the fact still remains that women have traditionally been represented poorly on screen. From unfair body expectations to women's roles within society, Hollywood has rarely championed women's rights. 

And in line with this, Hollywood is often criticized for female footwear choices in films. Some the most dominating, powerful female characters in movies are seen doing (completely unrealistic) activities in the highest of heels. Often, the costumes are not necessary to the plot or character, thus making the choice of heels all the more odd. 

In Andrew Niccol's In Time (2011), for instance, Amanda Seyfried's character spends the majority of the film literally running for her life — in sky-high stilettos. Though costumery is certainly a topic that can be vastly expanded on, it's interesting to look at Seyfried's outfit above and ponder how a short, form-fitting dress and needle-heel shoes became the choice for a woman who would be performing a lot of action throughout the film.

What Do Heels Mean?

One of the best theories as to why heels have become the go-to footwear for female cinematic stars is that the heel is a statement of power. The word "stiletto," after all, comes from the Italian word for dagger.

'Jurassic World' [Source: Universal Pictures]

'Jurassic World' [Source: Universal Pictures]

Women in Hollywood (try and fail as they might) are supposed to be representative of women in everyday life. Jurassic World (2015) director Colin Trevorrow explained his reasoning for the character Claire's heels throughout the film; the reason being that women are expected to wear these kinds of shoes in specific environments. Claire, a working woman, would have been "on duty" in the film and, thus, dressed in heels. 

Claire running from dinosaurs in heels can be interpreted multiple ways. Perhaps Claire's footwear is representative of her feminine power and ability to achieve the most difficult of tasks, despite any oppression against her gender that may hold her back. Maybe Trevorrow was making a statement about the expectations of women in society or, more specifically, the workplace. 

Or maybe there is no empowering reason for Claire's shoes at all. Maybe the reason is that the Jurassic World crew felt Bryce Dallas Howard, as a movie star, needed to be attractive. She needed to be outfitted in the "ultimate" feminine garb. The expectation of women on screen to dress up in heels (despite the amount of activity they will perform) is not a modern practice, though. In fact, it's been around for as long as cinema itself. 

In the early days of Hollywood, film studios would reportedly buy dozens of cheap white silk pumps because they were easy to dye or embroider for different characters and productions. These cheap pumps are actually what lies underneath the sequins of Dorothy's ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz

Many moviegoers are aware that Dorothy's slippers were not an arbitrary costume choice. The original story draws many allusions to the America author L. Frank Baum had lived in; the Yellow Brick Road represented the gold standard while Dorothy's slippers (silver in the novel) represented the silver standard. The shoe color was then famously changed to red in order to look better on screen. 

Nevertheless, Dorothy's shoes were undoubtedly meaningful. That does not mean, however, that they were practical. The color may have held much significance to the story, but the fact remains that Dorothy was portrayed as a simple Kansas farm girl, who went on a very long journey home through a magical land...in pumps.

Dorothy's ruby slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz' [Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]

Dorothy's ruby slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz' [Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]

Where Do We Go?

Overall, the issue seems to be that in Hollywood, if a woman is wearing a shoe, it must be a heel, but the solution here is not that heels should be vanished from the screen entirely. In fact, the feminine power surrounding the heel that blossomed in the '80s is really a great sentiment. 

The issue is when the heel transforms from a statement of power reserved for women into a uniform. When this happens, it seems that the dark, suppressive history of heels returns in the form of movie studios costuming women. Perhaps a female character can powerfully wear a pair of heels in a scene to exemplify her stature, but does Catwoman need to wear them in order to fight crime? 

The heel has transformed from an actual restriction on the body to a figurative symbol of women's power — however, the societal expectation for women continues to influence shoe choice. A woman in heels is the quintessential woman: a woman at her best, most glamorous self. Perhaps heels no longer leave a bad taste in our mouths, and no longer physically restrict us, but their presumptuous stigma is still just as potent.

'Dirty Dancing' (1987) [Source: Vestron Pictures]

'Dirty Dancing' (1987) [Source: Vestron Pictures]