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Achilles heels

Hannah Betts has a fashion-defying weak spot for empowering altitudes

There are moments in a journalistic career that my fellow Times leader writer, Philip Howard, used to refer to as “self-plagiarising”. For some reason, there will be a question one is repeatedly required to address. For him it was Greek hexameter and the fall of the Roman empire. For me it’s not having children and being a wearer of high heels. And that, my friends, is the difference a vagina makes.

Anyway, heels: feminism, fetishism, free choice, etc. Much the same with nippers, obv.

I relish my borrowed inches because they are the ultimate fashion folly. Plus nothing makes me feel more like the ballbreaker I am than being able to go eyeball-to-eyeball with the oppressor. It’s no coincidence that the decades in which women made real strides into the work place — the ’40s and ’70s/’80s — were those in which they towered.

The cognoscenti immediately ditched what Germaine Greer had labelled “fuck-me shoes”

All you need to know is that heels are over — for now, anyway. Some say forever, only these people are wrong. After all, they said the same post-9/11, when barefoot executives had been seen clutching their stilettoes as they fled the Twin Towers. Instead, the Noughties became years of staggering, spike-heeled, show-pony excess. Post-Sex and the City, women were reduced to the synecdochic parts “heels, bods, booze”, and called this liberation.

Christian Louboutin with eight-inch stiletto

In 2008, Christian Louboutin launched the first eight-inch spike outside the fetish world; albeit one might question quite how outside the fetish world this could be. Statistics suggested that as many as 20,000 women a year were being hospitalised by their heels. Corrective foot surgery was occurring to the tune of £29 million per annum, while cosmetic foot surgery saw women having the balls of their feet plumped with dermal filler, or firming up damaged tissue with Botox.

A podiatric surgeon noted that prolonged wear might lead not only to broken ankles, but stress fractures, back and hip problems, jaw, neck and head pain, menstrual dysfunction, fertility issues and incontinence. But, you know, what price glamour?

All this ended on 5 March 2011, when Cromwellian du jour Phoebe Philo took her bow at the end of the Celine show sporting a pair of Adidas Stan Smith trainers. The cognoscenti immediately ditched what Germaine Greer had labelled “fuck-me shoes”, even the stiletto-fixated French. Henceforth Planet Fashion was grounded. Ditto Planet Youth, which increasingly found heels a tad pre-Weinstein. Trend forecasters refer to this as part of the great “macrocasualisation,” more quotidian types “being able to walk”.

It took a while for the hobbling masses to catch up, but catch up they did. Back in February, retail analysts at Lyst noted a 25 per cent year-on-year decrease in sales of heels, while heeled boots had dropped 40 per cent. According to Mintel, fewer of us purchased heels last year than the year before, while trainers were the most popular category of female footwear, even for gift-buying males.

Among Gen Z, the resurgence of Doc Martens has become a global sensation, the brand reporting 70 per cent growth during 2019. At trend powerhouse Kurt Geiger, trainers are up 500 per cent over the past six years. In 2016, it still boasted a range of heels at almost 5in. Today none is higher than 3.5in, with the sort of high-heeled courts traditionally reserved for work simply not selling, employers no longer being allowed to impose the dress code “office geisha”.

Lockdown has only exacerbated this phenomenon. Nation’s favourite John Lewis tells me that “our customer is swapping to flats and white trainers, and we have seen a significant rise in Birkenstockstyle slider sandals, up 26 per cent.” Meanwhile, Selfridges’ 35,000 sq ft Shoe Galleries, opened in 2010 as a temple to Sex and the City excess, have seen “a real focus on comfort — Converse and Birkenstocks are both trading 40 per cent up. Sliders are 235 per cent up on last year, 160 per cent of which is since lockdown.” This summer’s micro-trends are similarly infantilised/in-patient: Crocs (Crocs! — see Christopher Kane’s £200 jewel-encrusted take); jelly shoes (Alexa Chung sells £75 JuJu Reilly versions); and — yes — slippers, worn outdoors. Over at Net-a-Porter, Gucci’s Princetown shearling-lined, crystal bow-encrusted versions are vile, £1,440, and thus sold out. If forced, I would opt for Gabriela Hearst’s Martin, (right) a sleek take on a gentleman’s slipper (£425). Think: a femme Cary Grant. Wait, that is Cary Grant.

For autumn/winter, matters will be flatly, ploddingly the same. Expect combat boots, bulky platforms, and what Vogue refers to as “the chunky welly boot” (is there any other sort?).

Heels will be confined to drag queens, mistresses, osteoporotic social skeletons, and me. I’m down with this. These are my people. Give it a couple of seasons and we will be less fashion roadkill than modishly early adopters. Viz, my latest acquisition: zebrastriped, ponyskin four-inchers, less “fuck me” than “fuck you”.

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