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The death of high heels: Why the flat is back

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Fashion journalist and author, Lauren Goldstein Crowe, charts the recent death of three and four-inchers

Photography: David Newton

I have some amazing heels in my wardrobe: Alaïa black suede platform Mary-Janes; silver satin Manolo Blahniks that tie around the ankle like ballet slippers, but with 10cm heels; the YSL gladiator sandals by Tom Ford (when then-editor of French Vogue Carine Roitfeld saw me wearing them after the show, I swear I heard her growl).

With a full-time job in fashion for Time magazine (as well as the odd story for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar) I used to wear heels every day. Having suffered through childhood as the tall, awkward girl, it seemed unfair to lose what finally became an advantage just because other women wore heels. Heels didn’t give me power, but the absence of heels made me feel average. Despite this, I was never really comfortable in heels. Inevitably, my beloved shoes would end up in the back of the car hired to shuffle me around shows, or in the coat-check of a bar. I would go out in heels, but I would come home in flats.

I began to search for flats as amazing as the heels I’d acquired and struck gold in unusual places: leather slides in the men’s department of Barneys; hiking boots I found skiing in the Dolomites. When I bought my Robert Clergerie brogues, the assistant said I’d have them forever – 20 years later I’m still wearing them.

Fortunately, fashion has caught up just when I needed to replenish my supply. The s/s 2014 runways showed more flats than I’ve seen in a decade. Espadrilles at Valentino, surf sandals at Prada, gold-toe loafers at Marni. Birkenstock has been dubbed brand of the year. It’s a brave new world.

In the end two things made me give up heels for good. Firstly, they went completely over the top. From the mid- 2000s, designers seemed engaged in a race to produce shoes that were the most wacky and, ergo, dangerous. I hated them for what they would do to women. Alexander McQueen’s 12-inch Armadillo shoes, shown in 2010, were so extreme some models wouldn’t wear them. Then fashion gave us 23-inch shoes with no heels at all.

Secondly, my role models changed – chatting to Bella Freud at a gallery opening, I felt overdressed in heels. At shows, I was more interested by Grace Coddington’s black sneakers than her assistants’ Blahniks.

I suddenly realised cool women don’t wear heels. Stella McCartney, definitely a cool girl, said, “There is something about having the confidence to wear a shoe that is not 10 inches tall that sends a message. I think there is something modern and cool about a flat man’s shoe for a woman, a certain attitude in that masculinity and it reflects who you are and not who you are trying to be.”

Standing tall

Not all of my friends have seen the light. Last winter, I went to [London nightclub] Loulou’s with a gaggle of beautiful 20-something women, all in ultra-high Christian Louboutins. The came, they sat, and... they sat. They were able to get from taxi to sofa and that was it.

Women have been sacrificing comfort for fashion pretty much as long as shoes have been around. Before the advent of steel allowed narrow heels, women in China and Europe wore platforms, known as chopines. In the 16th century, it was aristocratic men who wore riding boots with heels to keep their feet in stirrups. Women picked up on the trend when Catherine de Medici wore heels at her wedding in 1533 and so, heels became a sign of status. Most of us didn’t take to them until Christian Dior’s New Look after World War Two.

Heels have appeared in nearly every conceivable shape ever since. But it’s the stiletto that is still seen as the sexiest incarnation. Why? Designers will say they change the way a woman walks. Feminists will say this too, but that it’s the lack of mobility that appeals to men’s baser instincts.

I’d like to see the new love for the flat as an era of empowerment for women. But deep in my heart, I know that’s not the case. “I think it’s inevitable that the fashion pendulum, having swung so far to one extreme, should come back,” said Paula Reed, creative director of Mytheresa.com. “For the past seasons, designers have shifted their focus from extreme platforms to the kitten heel and now we have come back down to earth with a run of super chic flats.”

Flats are a trend, nothing more – we’ll soon be lusting over heels again. But, for now, here’s how to go without. First, wear flats without apology. Roll up your jeans, pair them with skirts of any length, buy suits with cropped trousers. Second, worry more about fabric than shape. Pink brogues go well with shorts. Leather trainers give edge to a suit. Gladiator sandals remove the saccharine from summer dresses. And don’t worry about height. In my book, any sole that keeps your foot horizontal counts as a flat. Nearly all of the trends (pointy toes, espadrilles, loafers…) come in a platform option. Here’s some more advice: stock up now. They’re going to have to see you through many highheeled seasons to come.

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