Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's regular column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, Harriet Hall discusses why Susan Sarandon's decision to wear flats on the red carpet is a bold feminist statement, at a time when women are still berated for wearing them in professional arenas.
Feminist Harriet Hall says:
Yesterday, social media was alight with the flame of controversy after a woman working for prestigious accountancy firm, PwC, was sent home without pay because she was not wearing heels.
Told she would be given time to nip out and buy a pair of shoes with a heel between two to four inches (and with her own money), temp worker Nicola Thorp, 27, refused, citing that nine hours on her feet would be painful and impractical in heels - not to mention the suggestion amounted to sheer discrimination.
Stylist’s coverage of the story sparked a heated Facebook debate, in which some women called the policy ‘completely sexist’ and ‘ridiculous’, and others surmised that the rules were reasonable and that heels are simply a gendered mirroring of a gentleman’s suit.
Other than it being incomprehensibly absurd that we are even discussing these issues in 2016, what’s all the more interesting is the timing of the story - which comes exactly a year on from some very similar ‘rules’ that were imposed at the Festival de Cannes.
For those who don’t recall, arriving for the premiere of ground-breaking lesbian romance, Carol, a group of 50-year-old women were kicked-off the red carpet because they weren’t ‘complying with the dress code’ i.e: they weren’t wearing heels.
So it’s no surprise that, this year, things were a little different.
Last night, as fleets of blacked-out Mercedes delivered the glitterati to the premiere of Woody Allen’s latest picture, Café Society, the press weren’t swooning over sparkles of couture, but over someone’s choice of footwear.
Susan Sarandon was wearing flats on the red carpet.
The Thelma and Louise star wore a black tuxedo with enormous Jackie O sunglasses, scarlet lipstick and flat, pointed pumps.
While it might come as a disappointment to many that it’s even newsworthy for a woman to wear a flat shoe in this day and age, unfortunately it is. And, fortunately, Sarandon knows that.
The Oscar winner broke her leg back in March. Perhaps she’s simply taking it easy on the high-heel front. However, she has previous when it comes to commanding the attention of the press with her sartorial prowess. In fact, the actor is known for being somewhat of a fashion renegade – having sent Twitter (and Piers Morgan in particular) into meltdown after she wore a cleavage-exposing ensemble to the Screen Actors Guild Awards earlier this year. Hell, she’s even gone barefoot on the red carpet in the past.
It’s entirely possible Sarandon had been planning this move for an entire year following the 2015 Cannes rule, gleefully rubbing her hands together at the thought of ruffling some French feathers with her footwear. Peppered with the fresh controversy of London's own heel-gate, her choice of shoes was particularly potent, and paired with a tux, this time the star was really making a point.
Because her ensemble distinctly disproves the notion that wearing heels is the only way for women to stand out. Sarandon's outfit is undeniably smart, sophisticated and, notably, no different from what many of the male celebrities would wear.
In fact, Sarandon’s outfit is not only poignant for her choice of shoes.
It reminds us that while today's gender-based style battle involves talking a stand against having to totter around in vertiginous spikes to appease patriarchal notions of appropriateness, it wasn’t so long ago that the battle centred around trousers.
For a long time, the wearing of tuxedos by women on the red carpet was a controversial move.
When Marlene Dietrich suited up in 1930 film, Morocco, the move went down in fashion – and film – history. And it was only in 1968 that socialite, Nan Kempner, was infamously refused entry from New York’s Le Côte Basque while wearing YSL’s fashionable Le Smoking tuxedo.
When the maître d' said she wasn’t allowed in, Kempner simply removed her trousers and swanned into the establishment wearing the jacket as a mini dress in an act of defiance that at once exposed and belittled the absurdity of the dress code.
Trousers on women were considered deeply inappropriate for centuries, because they were seen to draw the eye towards the crotch. Wearing a tuxedo went one step further - considered to present an ambiguous sexuality that was seen as a threat to the patriarchy.
Sarandon’s outfit serves as a reminder that it only takes a few women to stand up and refuse to conform, to make a change.
A change that – yes – seems like minor nitpicking when we put it into perspective and consider the more pressing issues facing the female gender but something, nonetheless, that represents an enormous victory when we consider how these micro-aggressions and rules are then magnified in society to keep women firmly in their submissive place.
What Sarandon has achieved by wearing flats on the Cannes red carpet was not a small petulant fashion statement but a bold - if subtle - feminist rebellion.
Sarandon is not only flipping the bird to the Cannes authorities, but she’s telling the world that you do not need heels to be smart, sexy or feminine. And you certainly don’t need them to be powerful.
After all, what’s more powerful than being able to command the world’s media at the click of your heels – or lack thereof?
One small step for Susan, one giant leap for womankind.
Send your feminist dilemmas to Ask a Feminist editor firstname.lastname@example.org and she'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.