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The power of the stiletto heel

Reflecting on the birth of this thinnest of high heels, its enduring popularity and the controversy that has dogged it for many years.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © emreogan |

“I don't know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot,” said Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe. At the height of her fame in the 1950s, there was one style of shoe that had become the object of desire for millions of women – the stiletto.

The name ‘stiletto’ is derived from a type of long, slender blade with a needle-like point, viewed as similar in profile to the heel of the shoe – the description of such footwear first being recorded in the early 1930s. Not all slim high heels merit the description ‘stiletto’ – to use the name, a shoe is generally expected to have a very thin heel, sometimes defined as having a diameter at the ground of less than 10 mm (slightly less than half an inch). The stiletto heel arrived with new technology which permitted the use of a supporting metal shaft or stem embedded into the heel, rather than designers relying on weaker materials such as wood that demanded a wide heel. Stiletto heel heights can vary tremendously, from 25 mm (1 inch) to 250 mm (10 inches) or more; those 50 mm or shorter being called ‘kitten heels’.

During the 1950s, footwear designers recognised that women were tired of the drab wartime fashions of the previous decade. Shoes with stiletto heels quickly provided the answer.

The pioneers

The idea which evolved into the stiletto heel was born long before the fifties. Andre Perugia (1893-1977) began designing shoes in 1906 and is one of the men associated with the first popular stiletto design. Of Italian descent, Perugia was the son of a shoemaker. However, at the age of 16, he decided that his father's styles of footwear were too old fashioned, so he decided to pursue a new career in shoe design. He opened his first boutique in Paris, and, although it is unlikely that he actually invented the stiletto, Perugia is credited with the innovative idea of using an inner metal column for solid support within a very narrow heel.

Although Perugia’s contribution to women’s fashion footwear is undeniable, it is Italian designer Roger Vivier (1907-1998) who has entered the history books as the developer of the stiletto heel, and using a thin rod of steel within the heel. He began working with Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (a contemporary of Coco Chanel) during the 1930s, and then collaborated with Christian Dior for more than a decade.

In the 1950s, Vivier introduced the ‘winkle-picker’, a pointed toe style of shoe, with a spike heel that often exceeded 80 mm in height. Dior’s ‘New Look’ movement was said to bring emphasis to the ankle and foot and, after the first of his designs was showcased in 1952, Vivier became a significant contributor to the overall seasonal collections made available.

Another Italian-born designer, Salvatore Ferragamo, is also recognised for his use of the stiletto heel. Gaining experience in his early years running a boutique and practicing traditional shoemaking methods, Ferregamo soon began receiving recognition when he helped with costume design projects for a number of well-known actors and actresses, included Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

Archive New Zealand

1950s female cabin crew were expected to work on slender-heeled footwear

The extremely slender stiletto heels of the late 1950s and early 1960s were, in some instances, no more than 5 mm in diameter for most of their length, although they sometimes flared out a little at the top-piece. In the early 1960s, the toes of the shoes with stiletto heels often became slender and elongated as well. As a result of the overall sharpness of outline, it was customary for the whole shoe to be referred to as a stiletto.

Fashions come and go, and so it was for stiletto heels. Although their popularity waned as the 1960s headed towards the 1970s, many women adamantly refused to give up wearing them, even when it became increasingly hard to find them in high street stores.

As part of a minor revival, Manolo Blahnik released a version of the stiletto heel in 1974, which he called the ‘Needle’. During the next decade, stilettos were often purchased in an attempt to soften the masculine cut of the so-called ‘power suits’ of the day.

The style survived throughout the 1980s but, in a reversal of its fortunes, virtually disappeared during the 1990s, when shoes with thick, block heels became the rage. However, a major comeback occurred in 2000, when young women adopted the style for improving their office clothing or adding a feminine touch to casual wear such as jeans.

Pain to gain?

Ever since the birth of high-heeled footwear, complaints have been raised that skeletal and muscular problems can be caused if such shoes are worn excessively. Of course, stiletto heels are no exception – according to some medical professionals, the height of the heel can push the body’s weight onto the balls of the feet, thus forcing the spine into an unnatural shape and thrusting the upper body forward. Continual wear can affect the knees, hips and lower back. In addition, the stiletto heel represents extreme instability, because the wearer’s weight is pinpointed on one small area. This can make them wobble as if walking on stilts, thus increasing the risk of tripping and spraining an ankle.


Stiletto heels regularly feature in footwear designers’ new collections

In addition to health issues, stiletto heels unavoidably concentrate considerable force onto a small area, and can cause damage to carpets and floors. The stiletto heel, unless equipped with a ‘heel stopper’, may also sink into soft ground, making it a poor choice for outdoor wear on grass.

Nevertheless, despite there being the potential for problems caused by wearing footwear with stiletto heels, the popularity of such shoes remains undiminished – evidenced by regular appearances at the major international footwear shows, their continued appearance in leading designers’ collections and, not least of all, being seen on women’s feet around the world. Why? Stilettos create the illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and a greater overall height, while altering the wearer’s posture and gait. Image, of course, counts for a great deal.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 36 of the May 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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