I purchased my first pair of high heels at a thrift store in Ashland, Oregon, on a break from the various planned activities associated with my high school drama department’s annual trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They were black vinyl stiletto sandals, with a dangerous heel and a hefty platform that allowed me some degree of comfort. I remember exactly how they felt: a little painful, cutting into my delicate foot flesh, but also sexy. I felt something akin to power, thankful for the alchemy of a powerful heel to make me less of a giant theater nerd and more of a femme fatale. The shoes weren’t explicitly stripper heels—a big, clear stiletto heel anchored to a clear Lucite sole with a sizable platform — though I imagine that they would be suitable for a baby stripper in training. They bore a not-unremarkable resemblance to Pleasers, the Lucite-heeled, towering platform shoe worn mostly by strippers but seems poised to break into the mainstream. Maybe Pleasers are an appropriate shoe for everyday wear, or perhaps there’s a future where Pleasers leave the strip club and hit the streets as an everyday shoe.
Pleasers aren’t meant for the streets, and are a shoe designed specifically to meet the needs of professional dancers or pole hobbyists who practice the art form on the side. If you are not familiar with Pleasers by name, you certainly know them by sight. When Jennifer Lopez taught Constance Wu how to work the pole in Hustlers, she was kitted out in the iconic stripper heel, with the big platform, the tall heel, and the clear sole. Pleasers are just a brand, but the name itself has become shorthand for this style, as it’s the preferred shoe of many professional and amateur dancers.
As Marie Lodi at Buzzfeed notes in her exhaustive overview of the shoe, the taboo of wearing clothing or shoes meant for the strip club has faded a bit in 2021, as social mores around what is or isn’t appropriate to wear out of the house loosen. Though Pleasers have been traditionally confined to the club, Lodi notes that they’ve been a secret weapon for actors in many other scenarios that are decidedly not the stage of a strip club. Helen Mirren wore Pleasers under her couture on various red carpets and in 2015, Jessica Chastain wore a 7-inch pair of stripper heels under her period garb in Crimson Peak. “Stripper heels are a sartorial conduit for empowerment and boldness, whether they’re being worn on the pole, on the red carpet, or on a Segway,” Lodi writes. For this reason alone, it makes sense that regular people might want a taste.
Valentino sent thigh-high platform boots down the runway in January. Olivia Rodrigo, Gen Z’s pop-punk queen, showed up at the White House to promote vaccines sporting a giant pair of white platform heels that are Pleasers-adjacent in silhouette. And, in one of the less-unhinged outfits from the forthcoming Sex and the City reboot, Sarah Jessica Parker clomped around the streets of Manhattan in a pair of Celine Melody tri-buckle heels, which look like Pleasers, but with a more wearable heel—thick and stocky instead of thin and tapering to a dangerous point. The platform shoe resurgence goes along with fashion’s current Y2K vibes, and so it makes sense that Pleasers are weaseling their way into the mainstream.
France, a dancer whose TikToks featuring her shoe collection rack up an impressive amount of views, told Jezebel that under no circumstances should Pleasers be worn on the streets, simply for safety issues. “Even in the club, if the floor has a chip in it or is lifted in a seam it’s so dangerous and I’ve seen so many girls fall and get injured,” she said. “I’ve definitely walked to my car on multiple occasions because I forgot something after changing and nearly busted my ass.”
France also took issue with any attempted normalization of the shoes, telling me that in her mind, making Pleasers acceptable footwear for every day is not only dangerous, but possibly appropriative. “You cannot take from our community and try to make it something it’s not and disassociate it from us,” France said. “Pleasers and pole work are for exotic dancers. A few years ago, pole as an exercise was trending but many of those people were against sex work, but they took our art.”
Strippers wear Pleasers for work purposes only, as do the pole dance hobbyists that France decried in her message. When I spoke to @angelaaerial, whose TikTok videos of her spinning around a pole in enormous heels are enormously popular, she understood the concerns that professional dancers might have about appropriation. “I think the appropriation comes from people that don’t see sex work as real work or that they try to separate pole dancing from its origin,” she told Jezebel. “People will go to pole classes, wear the Pleasers, and in their hashtags and videos say like, ‘I’m not a stripper.’”
Platform shoes like Pleasers have a long history, rooted in the shoes of the French court, and those shoes were designed primarily for men. “A lot of the advances that were made in cobbling to enable shoes to go higher and for platforms to even be made came in men’s cobbling,” Deirdre Clemente, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who specializes in 20th-century material culture, told Jezebel. A platform shoe naturally enhances the line of the leg and lifts the ass in a way that is enticing and overtly sexual, so it stands to reason that once shoemakers cottoned on to the silhouette’s appeal, the shoe in question would become in demand. Salvatore Ferragamo is largely credited with introducing the platform shoe to the mainstream in the 1920s, but according to Clemente, the style trickled down to the masses just in time for the light hedonism of the disco era.
Concerns about appropriation in fashion are valid, but as Clemente points out, it is the “basis” of how trends develop. “To associate these shoes only with stripper culture denies a lot of their history, but the sort of the historical basis of the shoe,” she said. The historical precedence for the resurgence of Pleasers is rooted in the cultural interchange between dance culture and fashion, starting with the ballet flat and leading up to more recent examples like the brief craze for ballet-inspired bolero shrug that dominated the 2000s and is now back with a vengeance.
Unlike ballet flats, though, Pleasers are a distinctive kind of shoe, highly suggestive of sex, and that idea has been explored thoroughly in recent fashion. In 2017, Kanye West debuted a pair of PVC mules with a clear heel and straps, and in 2018, his then-wife Kim Kardashian was photographed in a similar style—a Pleaser-lite for the off-duty stripper, creating the illusion that her entire body was held aloft by invisible strings. Sex is inherently a part of the allure of the stripper shoe, but as Cintra Wilson, a cultural critic and author of Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling American Style, points out, designer iterations of a $60 dollar platform meant for the stage essentially waters down the smut. “The quality of the shoe neuters the demimonde out of it,” Wilson told Jezebel. “It winks at danger, but all the danger is actually gone because of the price point.”
Wearing Pleasers or shoes similar in style in real life communicates a “semiotic verve of prostitution,” Wilson says, without any of the attendant physical, emotional, or financial consequences that are a part of the job. A woman on the Upper East Side clacking down the street in a pair of Saint Laurent Bettys is only selling the potential of sex. “Pleasers are deliberately naughty,” she said. But the naughtiness of an expensive shoe is nothing more than an empty signifier—a reference to sex without actually doing it. “The more expensive or designer or luxury the Pleaser is, the less potential sexual opportunity exists at the end of the rainbow,” Wilson said. “Because the more expensive the Pleasers are is in inverse proportion to how much sex you may get from it.”
To be clear: Leaving the house in a shoe meant specifically meant for the strip club is not an explicit invitation for unwanted or non-consensual sex. But there’s an insouciance to a big heel when paired with cutoffs and an oversized tee that gestures towards a new comfort with pushing boundaries. Harnessing the empowerment that strippers embody as part of the profession for your everyday life is not as easy as it looks—but walking out of the house in a pair of Pleasers, or any shoe of its ilk, is a good start.