Women have worn high-heeled shoes for hundreds of years, but the heel has never been so tall and narrow as on the stiletto heels that became popular in the early 1950s. A stiletto heel, named after a thin Italian dagger, could be as tall as four or five inches, and it narrowed to a point as small as three-eighths of an inch in diameter. The shoes forced women to stand on their tiptoes, clench their calf muscles, and thrust their chest forward for balance. The dramatic stance that the heels forced women to adopt was said to make the wearer look sexy and glamorous.
Italian designer Roger Vivier (1913–1998) invented the stiletto to accompany clothes designed by French fashion designer Christian Dior (1905–1957) in the early 1950s. The stiletto, like other fashions of the time, was not at all practical. It highlighted women's femininity, but the shoe was also a hazard to women's bodies and to the surfaces they walked on. Podiatrists, or doctors who treat the feet, warned that the shoes caused harm to the tendon, bone deformities, and back pain. The pointy heels tore carpets and scarred solid flooring; by the late 1950s airlines and some buildings had actually banned the heels.
Despite their dangers, stiletto heels remained popular throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s and staged a comeback in the 1990s. Popular 1950s actress Jayne Mansfield (1932–1967) claimed to have two hundred pairs of the heels, and actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932–) received notoriety for the scene in the movie Butterfield 8 (1960) in which she digs her stiletto heel into a man's shoe. In the film Single White Female (1992) actress Jennifer Jason Leigh's (1962–) character took the danger of the stiletto a step further when she used the steel spike of her stiletto heel to kill a man. Stiletto heels remain to some a potent symbol of female power and sexuality.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.
[See also Volume 4, 1919–29: High-Heeled Shoes ]