Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Feline shoes

Here's something I don't understand: kitten heels. They pair all the wobbliness of stilettos with the non-leg-lengthening properties of flats. I've often been in a store and noticed a shoe I thought was a flat, only to pick it up and see that pointless thing jutting out from the bottom, a heel that won't make me perceptibly taller. So, women who like them, what's the appeal? The name? The association with our (otherwise) well-dressed First Lady? If you want dainty without the height, what's wrong with ballet flats? What is the advantage of this over this?


Miss Self-Important said...

I have a pair of shoes like the first ones, and I bought them b/c they technically comply with office dress standards while being less uncomfortable than taller pumps. But no, they don't actually look very good.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Do offices frown on ballet flats? Somehow I can't imagine an office that required heels - Vogue, perhaps - finding kitten-heels acceptable.

Miss Self-Important said...

I perceived at the beginning of my employment that ballet flats looked too casual. By the end of my employment, however, I was wearing jeans to work, so I'm not really sure what the official standards were.

Miss Self-Important said...

I guess the point was, the kitten heels suggest effort, the flats--apathy.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Your work wardrobe experience just about describes my trajectory regarding clothes to teach in. It always ends up with jeans seeming reasonable.

I suppose ballet flats can look slipper-ish, but there are always the pointy (often black, often patent) flats that can't possibly be meant for any environment but an office. As various back-and-forths I've had with PG will attest, I know next to nothing about office-wear, so I don't know how much "effort" has to be indicated through discomfort beyond the rejection of sweatsuits and Uggs... but I find it hard to believe heels are ever more than an above-and-beyond attempt to look elegant/tall. Again, except if the workplace is fashion-related.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think in general in office environments where the work you do is only minimally difficult and useful, actually looking professional is the best thing, but looking like you try to look professional although you're clearly hopelessly frumpy is also worth points. Not trying at all puts you first in line for lay-offs. The other alternative is to locate your desk in a rarely-trafficked region of the office and never come out of it. This was my situation when I descended to jeans.

I don't think this applies to teaching, since your colleagues and bosses don't see you when you teach.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I agree with the need to dress the part for most jobs. (With teaching, it was basically that at a certain point I realized my students knew I wasn't 40, and that presence/demeanor in the room mattered more than the pencil skirt-to-jeans ratio. But I don't believe even my more casual days put me outside the range of dress for TAs or profs in my field.) What I'm confused about is how a half-inch pointy heel - as opposed to no heel or a more formal loafer-type shoe - is so essential. The only thing I can think of in terms of why this particular extra effort might matter is that the kitten heel is a way to make an outfit more definitively feminine. What with the apparent emphasis on women not looking masculine in certain professional settings (i.e., the Kagan-doesn't-heart-Fashion debacle), I can kind of understand how the sheer impracticality of the kitten heel makes it a "better" choice by this (ridiculous, but anyway) standard. That said, I fail to see how these, say, wouldn't get the same point across without the same balance issues.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think feminizing is the main way kitten heels win over pointy flats (which incidentally cost WAY more than my kitten heels). Some women (ahem) look pretty manly in suits, and the heel hanging down below the pant leg says "woman" better than any flat shoe, loafers very much included (b/c what looks manlier than pantsuit + loafers?). Also, I think men associate "heels" with "woman" in a way that makes any heel acceptable to them, even a stupid-looking one. They make the same clicking sound, too.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Re: cost, the links have been pretty much arbitrary attempts at Googling shoes of different styles - each of which exists at all price points. To find comparable shoes price-wise is a different scale of endeavor, one I reserve for shoes I'm looking to buy, not condemn or use to make blog-points. Those particular pointy ones, however, I happen to have seen in person (a classmate has them), and they're fabulous. I seriously doubt if even a cheaper version of those would allow a woman to look masculine. They'd work with skirts, dresses, narrow-cut pants... a pants-suit is tough to picture, but maybe?

Anyway, I think you're onto something with the clicking sound. (That said, my one attempt at buying shoes with a low, if not quite kitten, heel led to my all-time noisiest shoes, and not in a good way. As in, random people on the street once asked me what was going on with them.) I guess with feminine professional dress, there's a bit of an either-or - flats are OK with a skirt or dress situation, but heels are needed a pants suit. Discussions like these that make me think I made the right decision to go into a field that doesn't go by these rules. I mean, it helps to look polished, but how masculine or feminine one looks on a given day (or in general) is never, from what I can tell, an issue.

Matt said...

I like the "the stock market is down, so heels are down too!" theory suggested in the linked article. Not like as in "that's a good theory" but like as in "that's crazy enough to be amusing."

Some women I know (including my wife) like heels sometimes not because they make them look taller (these women are usually tall enough that they don't have any interest in looking taller) but because they think the change in ankle position makes their posture and legs look better. I tend not to agree- I think it looks unnatural and odd- but would heels this short have any such effect? If so, and you wanted such an effect but didn't want to look taller (Michelle Obama is fairly tall, isn't she? I don't know for sure), that might explain such things. Other people (and designers) could then just be aping some fashion leaders. But I don't know if this is plausible.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I doubt if kitten heels change ankle position, except in that they increase wobbliness, adding a damsel-in-distress dimension. It's all about the angle, and the one produced by kitten heels aren't any greater than those brought on by loafers or oxfords, or any other flats with a low but not stiletto heel.

And I'm not so sure that tall women, generally speaking, are opposed to looking even taller, if it means (as heels do) the illusion of longer, slimmer legs. (See these before-and-afters, ostensibly about the jeans, but actually about the shoe choice.) You can't have the slimming effect without the added height. Given the emphasis on women looking a particular weight as versus a particular height, I'd imagine many tall women opt for heels for this reason.

Petey said...

"What I'm confused about is how a half-inch pointy heel - as opposed to no heel or a more formal loafer-type shoe - is so essential."

I've stopped posting comments here, but I see an opportunity to clear up a perpetual confusion about heels in general.

High heels (including kitten heels) are not about increasing height. If they were, men would have every bit of incentive to wear heels that women do. (Instead, men who want to increase their height tend to resort to flat platform shoes, rather than heels.)

High heels (including kitten heels) are about changing body posture.

High heels (including kitten heels) increase the perceived T&A quotient. They protrude the chest forward and the backside backwards, thus increasing the appearance of female secondary sex characteristics. Women wear heels (including kitten heels) for the precise same reason that they wear lipstick.

(And women like Phoebe who prefer the gamine look are thus drawn to flats.)

Hopefully this will serve to end the perpetual confusion on the topic, and I will now return to being a reader of this blog rather than a commenter.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Hello again Petey,

I'm afraid the stance-versus-height issue came up already in the thread, although not in terms of chest-jutting-out specifically, just that some women are looking for something unrelated to height. As for whether kitten heels affect stance... I'm unconvinced. As I see it, even if a woman's not wearing heels to be taller, even if a woman would rather not look taller, the same aspect of the shoe that increases height is the one that changes stance. You can't have one without the other.

I see how the instability of the kitten heel makes a woman look more likely to topple over, and how this alone makes the kitten heel "feminine," but what I doubt is the potential you ascribe to even a half-inch stiletto. I suppose I'd need to see two women walking in the respective styles to assess, because my own sense of this from having worn a variety of styles is that heel height is key.

Isabel Archer said...

No, I don't understand the allure of low heels either. This is perhaps because I am unusually unable to walk in any kind of heels and so usually avoid them in professional situations that demand not falling over. If the heels are 2-3 in., at least there's the fun of being closer to average height. With the littler ones, there's all the clumsiness and none of the added height.

I do wear ballet flats to work. My situation is strange because I work for a Californian who's in the office all of a few days per month. So there aren't many people around to notice or care what I look like. Thus my also deciding last week that sleeves were unnecessary because of the non-functioning air conditioner, though I've never yet succumbed to jeans.

I suppose heels might create some change in posture that's flattering. Maybe. I've never noticed it, myself -- I've merely enjoyed the height advantage.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Isabel Archer,

I've also only gone with heels for the height advantage, and sympathize with not being able to wear them at the times they seem most potentially advantageous (conferences, especially), for fear of toppling over.

Which brings me back to Petey's pronouncement in the hot-or-height discussion - surely some women are interested in stance, but not all. It's inaccurate to say that height isn't the reason many, many women opt for heels. If you're short, it's fun to have the option of being, as Isabel Archer notes, closer to average height. (If you're tall, I suppose, it's fun to tower over everyone on occasion.) Many women's shoes have a platform for this reason, but since platforms aren't officewear, women turn to more classic pumps, not necessarily to jut out the chest, but perhaps just to be 5'7" rather than 5'4". Since officewear's irrelevant to my life, when I want height, I go for something with a platform.

As for why men don't go this route (even flat platforms are considered a bit shameful), it's because men aren't traditionally supposed to be seen caring about their looks. Height is for men what weight is for women, so the stakes are if anything greater for men than women in this area. But men act more consistently with expectations for their physical presentation by not attempting to "correct" short stature. As in, a man is more conventionally attractive accepting that he's 5'5" than wearing any kind of shoe that would make him 5'8".

Not unrelated: the post-makeover Kagan wears kitten heels. Make of this what you will.