In one of the many brisk, readable chapters of Summer Brennan’s new book High Heel, she points out that a high heel shoe is a symbol of femininity—if the door of a public restroom has a picture of a high heel shoe on it, it would signify that it’s a women’s room. When people use the phrase “backward and in high heels” they’re referring specifically to the additional difficulty women face in public activities in a man’s world. It’s not only that a high heel represents public womanhood, but it also represents impeded womanhood. It is a shoe that makes it harder to walk, and it’s also beautiful and makes the wearer more beautiful.
Brennan circles around the shoes from all angles, and her brief chapters add up to a kaleidoscopic view of feminine public existence, both wide-ranging and thoughtful. She describes the high heel shoes she wore for her own job at the United Nations, and she describes falling down stairs in the course of doing her job while wearing them. There’s another short chapter about the tall tale that expensive high heels don’t hurt, only cheap ones do, so if you’re in pain it’s because you’re either too poor or too cheap. She discusses the cultural moments when they were seen as masculine. There’s another chapter about Daphne escaping Apollo by becoming a tree, and one about Eddie Izzard’s heeled boots. Very simply—too simply, as Brennan’s book illustrates—the paradox of the shoes is that women become socially mobile by wearing shoes that impede their physical mobility. It’s easy to reject a practice like foot binding once the resulting feet are no longer considered beautiful, but while high heels are beautiful within our culture, rejecting them means cutting ourselves off from vital pleasures.
Brennan describes the effect of the high heel on the lower half of a person’s body as being like a push-up bra for the legs and buttocks. The price of admission to public life and the possibility of power is wearing shoes that make it painful to walk, nearly impossible to run, and dangerous to go up and down stairs. Even though individual women can refuse to wear heels, while our society favors the look of the heel and the leg, hips, and butt of the heel-wearing woman, there is an undeniable elegance and beauty in them. When someone is told they can’t wear heels, for whatever reason their body isn’t the kind that’s allowed heels—too masculine, too fat, too brown—it’s usually more than just that kind of shoe that’s barred—it’s elegance and sexiness and public visibility that’s only permitted for some bodies but not others.
The work of Coco Chanel is, for better or for worse, integral to high heels and how women move in public even now, more than a hundred years after she began designing clothes. Chanel was a proponent of the free motion of a woman’s body, and she believed in flat shoes, but the changes she made in women’s fashion and her policial fascism are a major factor in the place high heels have in our culture.
She wasn’t the first major designer of the 20th century to design for uncorseted women, most of the fashion establishment in Paris began making empire-waisted gowns once the tough corsets of the late 19th century began to seem unhealthy and unattractive. Before Chanel, the tightest part of a woman’s dress was around her floating ribs or higher, and it would still be a dress that’s tight at the waist, looser above and below. It’s an aesthetic nudge away from what came before, not a revolution.
For the first time in European history, Chanel put the most fitted part of dresses at the hips, and made the waists wide. Looking at Chanel’s influence in modern women’s fashion is like looking at Steve Jobs’s within consumer tech—that the same person could introduce the computer mouse and the iPhone is remarkable—except in Chanel’s case, her achievements are even less likely, because she arrived at the highest level of an established industry functionally illiterate, and without training in sewing or cutting patterns.
She sold expensive clothes made of rough fabrics associated with laborers, decorated with cheap fur and costume jewelry associated with sex workers. At the age of 20, she was an impoverished sex worker herself and, by the age of 50, a billionaire in adjusted currency—all for selling a version of fashion that was so modernist that it must have looked like cubism to her first buyers. (Incidentally, she also designed Pablo Picasso’s iconic striped shirt.) There are a few styles women commonly wear in 21st century American or European cities that are tighter at the waist and looser at the hips, but most of our daily clothes are fitted around the hips, low belly, and butt. Jeans and a nice top, a skirt suit, yoga pants and a sweatshirt all have this silhouette. Visible panty lines are also part of Chanel’s legacy.
Motion was the heart of her designs—she made things that women could move in, specifically calculating the number of inches a person needed around her waist in order to move freely and then making her dresses and jackets with that space. Flat shoes were also part of the Chanel look, so women could walk comfortably. She put fringes on evening gowns to accentuate the motion of bodies that seemed naked underneath clothes. These were forms of fashion cubism compared with petticoating and bustling of previous generations. The degree of change and the amount it was embraced by her society is unprecedented in the course of design history. Even if there’s nothing else astonishing about her story, she may be the only person who ever commuted sexual power into actual power. Not influence, not a good marriage, not the power behind the throne, but real power—and she used that power to be a Nazi.
According to Rhonda K. Garelick, in her book Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History, Chanel wasn’t prosecuted for war crimes after World War II because Winston Churchill stepped in on her behalf, but with our current historical evidence, there’s no question that she was guilty of treason against France; spying on behalf of the Nazis. She took advantage of fascist laws to try to steal property from her Jewish business partners. She reportedly sicced the SS on a social rival and drove her into hiding. Where apartments were left vacant by Jewish families, Chanel reportedly walked through and stole valuables. Churchill was reportedly afraid of how much Chanel knew about the Nazi sympathies of the British Royal Family, so her name and her brand are allowed to stand for high fashion and soigné elegance to this day. Fascism was central to her designs, and it’s impossible to separate her work from her politics.
Garelick makes a point that requires some explanation: essentially, men’s fascism involved body-con uniforms with lots of decorative medals and an emphasis on physical perfection, and this is a lot closer to what Chanel was selling than the fascist ideal for women. For men, it was about physical perfection. Women in these regimes were asked to be modest, bear children, and not move through the world too boldly. Ideally, fascist women would be home caring for babies, not dressing up and strutting around. Chanel herself used the money she earned selling luxury goods to fund her boyfriend Paul Iribe’s right-wing newspaper that decried the vanity of women who bought luxury goods.
Even though she was nauseously committed to the Nazi project, Chanel wasn’t making money on women staying home. It’s hard to imagine that someone invented all these things that are such an enormous part of the texture of our lives now, but designers didn’t always sell the symbols and aesthetics of poverty to the rich, like Chanel’s costume jewelry and rough-weave suits. They didn’t make aspirational labels to display on the garments they sold, like Chanel’s interlocking initials. People didn’t wear labels like medals until these practices were invented, and sold, along with a glamour of belonging to the ersatz army of Chanel’s logo and her image. She sold clothes designed to let a woman move boldly through the world—along with the requirement that she maintain a perfect body. Garelick argues that Chanel was selling men’s fascism to women, arguably more successfully than anyone has ever sold it among men.
From the days after World War I, when Chanel rejoiced that war-starved women were finally thin enough to wear her dresses, to her old age, when she was still asking people to pinch her rear to feel how taut it was, she was always obsessed with one single version of physical perfection. She always believed in the motion of women’s bodies and wanted them to wear her name like a military medal, but only as long as those bodies were kept thin and hard.
There are several Chanel style jackets currently for sale on the J. Crew website—they could have been designed in the mid-1920s, where a jacket from 1915 would look costumey in a modern context. Chanel’s designs have been nudged one way and another, but her example is still the primary model for how modern women appear polished in public, and her example still guides how fashion and luxury operate to this day. The aesthetic emphasis on a woman’s hips, butt and the flatness of her stomach rather than the smallness of her waist is nearly universal. Most ascendant of all, fashion is still about shaming women’s bodies into fitting clothes rather than making clothes that fit women’s bodies. It’s not trivial that the look of a modern woman in public is largely conceived by a fascist because we’re still living with the credentials for public authority that she believed in—a thin, muscular body.
One exception to the ascendance of Chanel’s fascism for women: the high heel. She didn’t carry her point that women should all wear two-tone ballet flats with suits. The ways high heels alter the body are much more visible in styles that display the hips, stomach, and thighs than they were under floor-length crinolines. The high heel makes legs and hips look slimmer and more muscular, which is generally more important than mobility in the world Chanel made.
Catherine Nichols has written many essays for Jezebel. Her work has also appeared in Electric Literature, The Week, Aeon and other publications.