“Heels have nothing to do with power in the workplace. Why do we pretend they do?”

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Anna Brech
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Feel-good fun? Yes. A symbol of power? No. It's time to redefine our relationship with shoes at work, says Stylist's Anna Brech...

Women have a centuries-long relationship with heels. And, like all good relationships, it needs to be healthy and balanced.

Yes, we may want heels to make us feel good and powerful - sexy, even, if the occasion warrants it. But we shouldn't need them to be any of these things.

Which is why the case this week of the receptionist sent home for refusing to wear heels is so galling.

Something we thought we had a choice over has morphed into an expectation, coated in words such as "smart", "formal" and "work-appropriate". 

When smart means sexy

Let's get this straight: there is nothing "smart" about wearing heels. The argument is entirely flawed.

Flats have been gaining major fashion kudos in recent years but even if they hadn't, there is no reason why a standard pair of brogues couldn't be classed as appropriate work wear.

The only thing that sets heels apart are their cultural association with women. They are dense with the linguistics of femininity and sensuality. 

So when someone frames the need for heels at work under "smart", what they're really asking for (whether they know it or not) is "sexy". 

Stylist contributor Amy Swales agrees. "What we're dealing with here is other people's perceptions of heels. The people who are confusing 'smart' with 'flattering', and flattering = taller = sexier/more attractive. And there's no reason in this day and age that women should have to be any of those things in the workplace."

Feel-good factor

And yet, a whole stream of women would agree that heels do make them feel powerful and good about themselves in a work environment. And this has nothing to do with sexiness.

"I don’t wear heels very often as I find them hard to walk in, but when I do wear them they definitely make me feel more powerful and ‘smartly’ dressed," says Stylist writer Sarah Biddlecombe. "They make me walk taller – but for me, this has nothing to do with trying to match the height of men around me. I’ve never specifically been told to wear them but I will always wear them when wanting to impress."

"I started wearing heels to work when I got a promotion and felt like I should start dressing the part," says ShortList content marketing manager Victoria Gray. "Obviously working in a fashionable place, I felt like wearing heels would add the finishing touch to a smart-casual work look. So as well as buying more smart shirts and dresses, I bought a cheap pair of black heels to keep under my desk. Standing at 5’2” and working in a team with a lot of men, I also enjoy the feeling of increasing my height, so wearing heels makes me stand taller and take myself a bit more seriously, which is a great confidence boost."

The ultimate power tool?

It's not hard to see where the confusion between sexy, smart and powerful comes from. 

Look at any "power woman" depicted on TV in recent years and there's a good chance she'll come packaged up with a five-inch pair of heels.

The formidable Claire Underwood of House of Cards would rather clobber Frank over the head with one of her towering Stilettos than venture outside her White House bedroom without them (in fact she'd quite likely clobber Frank over the head anyway, but that's another topic).

The Good Wife's Alicia Florrick draws her trademark courtroom flair from a carefully curated uniform, of which heels  - at least three inches - are a central tenet.

It's hard to imagine Olivia Pope's power strut in Scandal without the presence of her gravity-defying shoes (although actress Kerry Washington prefers flip-flops in real life). 

These women's heels aren't an incidental aspect of their power and status, they're central to it. It would be difficult to picture them sauntering around, scoring goals and pulling verbal punches, without them. 

"I think you should always wear a heel," Dan Lawson, the costume designer behind The Good Wife, notes. "I know women hesitate about that because they're comfortable in flats, but I think you need to have a comfortable high heeled shoe, something that says strength. It changes your posture. It says, 'I'm really together.'"

As a 5'1'' person whose feet are too fat to swagger in anything above the measliest of wedges, I'm bemused about the starring role shoes play in these women's professional standing. It's like the sheer amount of inches in those heels are fuel to their swagger. 

Power at a price

It's ironic, really, that we've ended up eulogising the "power" of something that makes us weak. 

Heels give us a physical boost yes, they literally help us take up space - they demand attention just as the whole 80s Thatcherite shoulder-pads-and-big-hair thing did.

But you only have to look at the waitress' photo of her bloodied feet that went viral this week to realise that they're also painful. Experts agree that  regular long-term use is killing our feet and creating other issues such as back problems. 

High heels slow us down, they mean we can't run - at their most extreme, we merely teeter. They control us, forcing us to be slower.

Even at their most innocuous, they make us more careful and poised. And that's not necessarily a good thing. 

All in the choice

All of this isn't to say that we shouldn't wear heels. Just that we shouldn't confuse wanting to wear them now and again with having to, for whatever reason.

For guidance perhaps we should look at queen of heels Carrie Bradshaw. 

She saw them as something fun and delightful, a decadent quirk that she indulged in - eyebrow raised to suggest she knew they weren't really that serious (even if her credit card begged to differ). 

A pair of heels can be a feel-good weapon in a woman's armoury, but she shouldn't be reliant on them to channel power and gravitas.

They might make her feel good, but this desire shouldn't spill over into a sense of obligation, at work or elsewhere.

And it most certainly shouldn't morph from a personal choice - a preference, a pleasure, a fancy - to something that is expected by other people. 

Heels are purely aesthetic. Real power comes from recognising that you have a choice to wear them. 

Photos: iStock/Rex Features


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.