A BRIEF HISTORY OF STILETTOS
Trailing the cultural footprint of high heels from painful Renaissance platforms to Marilyn's wanton wiggle.
By Laura McLaws Helms
Reading time 5 Minutes
Maidens of Fetish Street is populated with a cavalcade of the most insalubrious, all clad in the barest of cheap garments. ‘Fetish street’ (for that is the ‘F’ of the title) is truly the tale of debauchery taken to its far reaches. It follows Nick’s descent into perversion at a tawdry topless burlesque show, after which he slithers into a life of hedonism as the gigolo of a Madame at a cheap brothel. While his middle-aged paramour wears a floor-length, long-sleeved leopard print dress over her simple white lace basque and half-slip, her female employee and a visiting hooker are both arrayed in a uniform of inexpensive black lace bra, knickers and garter belt. It’s on their feet that the three’s shared debaucherous leanings are most clearly revealed: all wear black leather stilettos. Not removed during sex or a massive brawl, the gleaming high heels are a clear symbol of their depravity.
A signature element of fetish dress, high heels in various incarnations have been noted for their erotic connotations for centuries. During the Renaissance, the Venetian chopine was an enormously tall platform shoe most closely associated with both aristocrats and courtesans, starting a trend for footwear that inhibited the wearer’s movement as a form of erotic bondage. By the early 20th century, fetishists had become fixated on an equally high yet much more narrow heel; these were specially made by accommodating cobblers and often so tall they were strictly for posing and bedroom wear. Vertiginous heels stepped out from the boudoir and into fashion with the introduction of the stiletto in 1952 by Roger Vivier – adapting the classic pump shape, he cut curves into the vamps for a tighter fit, pointed the toe and heightened and tapered the heels into a very slender four inches.
Named for a Sicilian fighting knife, the style has been described as “sleek, sharp and sexy with an aura of elegant menace”. Stilettos reached new heights by the late 1950s with the development of reinforced steel heels, thereby increasing their most noted effect – the way they changed the wearer’s gait and posture. Bizarre magazine, the bible of fetishism launched by photographer John Willie (some images of which are shown in The Maidens of Fetish Street when Nick visits an ‘art photo’ store), published an article at that time stating: “The slight jar produced by extra-high heels results in an eye-catching quivering wave in the plump, protruding breasts. There is an alternate side-to-side movement of the hips…” Just think of Marilyn Monroe’s signature wiggle and you will know how seductive this is.
Though fashionable, stilettos clearly transgressed social codes of respectable femininity – those who chose to wear such aggressively modern heels were actively rejecting the prim and proper styles of their mothers. Transcending the original fetish influence, they were beloved by any women unafraid to toy with the dark side: celebrities like Monroe and Diana Dors, fashion models, secretaries, and prostitutes alike. Attracted by their dangerous subtext, the wearer subconsciously or consciously understood the powers inherent in stiletto – fetishists described a high heel clad foot as “a mysterious weapon… a symbol of love… a symbol of aggression…” Contemporary shoe designers like Christian Louboutin continue to return to the stiletto for these very reasons; what other shoe is bestowed with such power and domination? Add in the incredible pain often borne while wearing them, and stilettos become not just a symbol of dominance but also masochism and bondage.
Though peculiarly set in the pre-stiletto years of the late 1920s, the women of Nick’s ‘House of Fetish’ all wear the stiletto for its erotic symbolism. The stiletto makes it’s first and sole appearance in the film when Nick’s cavorting with a visiting black prostitute is interrupted by the Madame and one of her girls – a violent fight breaks out between the three, writhing on the floor in black lingerie with black heels glistening. The danger inherent in the stiletto is now a reality as Hilda and her girl seek to dominate the streetwalker, holding her down and spanking her. Clothes get ripped but the shoes never come off. The stiletto – as demonstrated in The Girls on F Street and other sexploitation films – can be seen to encapsulate all that is perverted, erotic and dangerous into a very shapely, torturously high shoe.
Laura McLaws Helms is a fashion/cultural historian, design consultant and writer based in New York. She curated the exhibition Thea Porter: 70s Bohemian Chic at the Fashion & Textile Museum in London, and wrote an accompanying monograph, Thea Porter: Bohemian Chic (V&A Publications). Laura is the co-founder of Lady, an arts and fashion publication and website (ladyworld.tv), for whom she hosts the Lady's After Hours podcast.