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If the shoe fits: why do women love shoes?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 September 2010

They used to say diamonds were a girl's best friend - but these days it is all about shoes. As luxury shoe sales boom and a new shoe-themed show hits London, culture editor Matthew Cain looks at why top-class shoes are surging in popularity.  

Shoes: why do women love them so much?

Sales of luxury shoes for women have boomed in the 12 years since Sex and the City hit our screens and even the recession has not been able to hold them back.

According to Bain and Company, in 2009 the overall luxury market shrank by 8 per cent, while the sales of luxury shoes only fell by 0.5 per cent. Moreover, Bain predicts that in 2010 luxury shoe sales will bounce back by around 5 per cent, above other categories of goods in the luxury market. 

As if to prove the point, in just a few weeks' time, department store Selfridges in central London will open its new, expanded shoe department, set to be the biggest in the world. And in celebration of what has become a true cultural phenomenon, a new song and dance revue will be opening tonight at Sadlers Wells theatre in North London. Its title says it all; it is called, simply, Shoes.

So what is going on here? Why are shoes proving so popular amongst women, even during times of economic austerity? 

Well, the simple answer is that when times are tough, women are feeling the need to treat themselves. And compared to other luxury goods such as coats or jewellery, shoes are a relatively cheap way of not only treating yourself but updating your wardrobe and sometimes your whole look in the process. 

Apparently, one in 10 women in Britain own more than 30 pairs of shoes. So the popularity of shoes clearly isn't down to utility – or even fashion. Perhaps the real reason behind the popularity of shoes has more to do with the psychology of footwear. 

The women I spoke to in the audience of the first preview of Shoes were keen to tell me that wearing the right pair of shoes can transform not only a person's look but their whole mood too. Physically, high-heeled shoes make you arch your back, walk taller and feel like your legs are longer. It doesn't take much of a leap of the imagination to see why shoes can boost a woman's self-confidence and lead to feelings of heightened self-esteem and even empowerment. 

Richard Thomas, writer and composer of the show Shoes, is happy to make that leap. During the course of his research for the show, he observed a strong emotional connection between the people he spoke to and the shoes they wear. It soon became clear to him that the average person has more memories of the shoes they have worn than they do of any other item of clothing from their past. 

"It's like a metaphor," he explained to Channel 4 News after the first preview.

"A metaphor for joy, desire, yearning, frustration, longing and – without wanting to sound too pretentious – humanity."

Quite a claim. But Thomas might just be onto something. 

Sure, plenty of us scoffed when Imelda Marcos was caught in possession of nearly 3,000 pairs of shoes in the 1980s. But she was not alone in her obsession. The potential for shoe-worship has always existed. Sex and the City didn’t invent the shoe craze; it picked up on something that was already in the air and popularised it. 

Shoes and identity
What Sex and the City did was to mix up an appreciation of shoes with an assertion of one's identity as a strong, successful and independent woman. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, its creators transformed shoes into a tool of self-actualisation. And this is something that certain cultural commentators have taken issue with.

When I asked Germaine Greer why she thinks so many women see shoes as an expression of their identity, she replied: "I very much doubt that women really think that. It's what they're told they think. It's like people having breast implants and saying that they're majestically empowered by having a bottom grafted onto their chest. It's a delusion but it's a delusion that's probably common enough to be exploited by marketing."

Perhaps marketing has been able to exploit this delusion so successfully because there always has been something special about feet. Foot fetishists existed long before programmes like Eurotrash began poking fun at them in the 90s and toe-sucking was going on for hundreds of years before Sarah Ferguson and Madonna introduced the practice to a whole new generation around the same time. Whichever way we look at it, the foot is undeniably a highly erogenous zone. Packed with nerve endings, it's one of the most intimate, sensitive and sensual parts of the human body.

Shoes and pain
Which is why I'm so fascinated by the pain that so many women willingly inflict on their feet in our supposedly liberated world. Some of the more extreme designs of shoe seen on the catwalk in recent years look excruciating and the injuries associated with wearing torturous shoes like these are becoming more and more common. 
Shoe designs on the catwalk
Posh Spice's bunions are now almost as famous as her trademark stilettos. Looking at photos of them in the tabloid press calls to mind the brutality of foot-binding in the East, platform heels in Renaissance Venice or even pointe shoes in classical ballet. Are some of our more recent, cripplingly painful shoe designs just more socially acceptable versions of the same age-old brutality? 

And more to the point, why is it that it's only women who are subject to this brutality? Research has shown that men are much more attracted by comfort when buying shoes. If men have anything approaching a shoe obsession, this tends to manifest itself in a collection of trainers. Women are alone in their willingness to endure pain. 

'Beauty is pain'
So have so many years of being told that "beauty is pain" taken an irreversible effect? Have women become convinced that, as the French say, "il faut suffrir pour être belle"?

If this is indeed the case then it might go some way to explaining why so many women associate high heels with empowerment when they're clearly much more closely aligned to debilitation. If women have difficulty walking in certain types of shoes, how can they run away if faced with a real and present danger? It all strikes me as a strange sort of empowerment.

Perhaps the readiness of certain women to wear painful designs of shoe should come as no surprise. In 2010, women are still judged on their looks and defined by the clothes they wear much more than men. It is inarguable that looking good for a woman is a much weightier enterprise than it is for a man. But what is perhaps most interesting about the obsessive worship of high heeled shoes is that the women who choose to wear them are adamant that they are wearing them for their own sake – or possibly for other women to admire and appreciate – and certainly not for men. 

This is something that struck me quite strongly when chatting to the audience of Shoes at Sadlers Wells. And if their opinion is representative of a wider trend out there, then something has gone horribly wrong.

But maybe the situation is not as bleak as it seems. There are signs that in fashion at least things are changing.

Time for practicality?
As shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood told me: "Things got to a point a few seasons ago where designers were trying to outdo each other and it just got so extreme, it almost hit an impractical level. As fashion changes and we feel we've told that story it's time to look for something different. And what becomes interesting is that now it's more about subtleties and comfort and practicality." 

So is fashion leading the way or responding to a backlash coming from the female consumers themselves?   Anecdotally, more and more women are rejecting the idea of suffering for beauty.  During rush hour in London it is now common to see women walking to work in trainers, changing into their high heels before they enter the office. 

This would have been almost unheard of even ten years ago. Perhaps it has become more common in recent years as the designs of female shoes have become more and more extreme. But if designs are indeed changing and moving back to comfort and practicality, then I for one hope we'll soon see the day when women don't have to suffer – either in or out of the office.

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