As British Prime Minister Theresa May, hits the front pages, it’s not her political prowess, but her kitten heels and husband that’s making headlines.
Heels are no stranger to the press in 2016. In May, when a London-based woman was sent home for refusing to wear heels at multinational accountancy firm PWC, a petition was launched to make heels mandatory in the workplace, illegal. It has since gathered over 140,000 signatures, making it worthy of parliamentary debate. Conversely, in Japan, women are spending big money at the Japan High Heels Association to learn ‘walking etiquette’ in order to get ahead in business.
Let’s be honest. The subject of the changing face of women’s workwear is nothing new. Female corporate fashion has evolved over time not only due to aesthetics, but also to functionality and changes in society.
A trek back in time
The Second World War, saw the advent of women wearing simple, fuss-free clothes and, for the first time in the workplace, trousers. This was due to the limited raw materials available, and the practical nature of their work in the factories.
By 1944, tailors enjoyed a healthy growth, thanks to their new female market demographic.
Fast forward to the 1980s; we arrive in the ultimate power-dressing era, with shoulder pads suited to the rugby field matched with skyscraper heels.
Then, as we progressed to the new millennia, the focus shifted once again towards functionality and health.
Four decades on from the 80s power suits and perms, we need to be asking whether wearing heels equates female empowerment in the workplace.
What should the powerful woman look like?
When Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, ran for Congress in the 1980s, she was criticised for her lack of lipstick and stockings, and her preference for flats. ‘From then on I wore heels despite the backache they gave me,’ she said. Progress then, perhaps, that in January 2016 Hillary Clinton made the news by opting for flats during her presidential campaign. Of course, that it made the news at all, shows that women are very much still scrutinised for what they wear in a way that generally cannot be said for their male counterparts.
Can women navigate the choppy office-wear waters successfully? Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of Exeter University has described how she was criticised based on her appearance. “My heels are too high. My hair is too long. I look too ‘glamorous’, too ‘feminine’, to be an academic,” she says.
Cultural and religious tolerance
Besides heels, religious dress codes have caused controversy in the workplace where wearing a chunni or hijab, for example, often come under the spotlight, coupled with cases of sacking over religious headscarves. The legal stance on this is now one of tolerance, allowing employees to demonstrate their faith through what they wear, as long as it’s deemed tasteful. In essence, it is a choice.
By and large, choice is afforded to women over their footwear. Yes, some women are penalised for preferring laid-back ballet flats over towering courts, despite the fact that for the majority, wearing heels to work is simply a decision they make every morning. So why then, do many women still choose height over health? What is so important about those extra inches?
Function versus aesthetics
The fact is, for both men and women, height equals power. In fact, it has been suggested that every 2.5 inches is worth $2,800 SGD in the workplace. The problem with heels as a means to women gaining a few inches is that it’s not just height they provide, but obvious sexualisation too, which should be irrelevant in a professional environment. Let’s face it – it’s just another way for women to be judged on their looks rather than their abilities. Recent reports have also shown that women who wear low cut tops are much more likely to land an interview.
The danger is real
Heels are amazingly impractical and spending hours and days in a pair of stilettos puts a physical strain on a woman’s body. A recent study published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Injuries suggested that high heels could lead to instability and balance problems. And according to the Spine Institute, frequent use of high heels can actually lead to negative changes in anatomy.
Now is the time to take the pressure off our feet, and focus on winning through achievement. In a society where men can still dominate the corporate world, women can push the envelope and step up in other, more creative ways, sans heels. As Ginger Rogers once said, “There’s nothing a man can do, that I can’t do better and in heels.” However, in this enlightened day and age, why should we ‘heel’?