REVIEW: High Heel by Summer Brennan

This review originally appeared on 80 Books Blog.

4 out of 5 stars   ★★★★☆

Bloomsbury Academic, March 21, 2019

Fetishized, demonized, celebrated and outlawed, the high heel is central to the iconography of modern womanhood. But are high heels good? Are they feminist? What does it mean for a woman (or, for that matter, a man) to choose to wear them? Meditating on the labyrinthine nature of sexual identity and the performance of gender, High Heel moves from film to fairytale, from foot binding to feminism, and from the golden ratio to glam rock. It considers this most provocative of fashion accessories as a nexus of desire and struggle, sex and society, setting out to understand what it means to be a woman by walking a few hundred years in her shoes.

I received an advanced copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

High Heel is part of a series published by Bloomsbury Academic called “Object Lessons” that takes everyday topics and does a brief, but in depth look at those objects. I probably would have overlooked the series entirely if I didn’t already follow the author of this work on Twitter. I am intrigued by some of the other works in the series so this was a good gateway book for me.

High Heel explores the history of the shoe and how it was considered masculine, and made for soldiers in cavalry, before becoming the fashion of noble Europe, and eventually making it’s way as the standard for professional dress for women in today’s world. This is just the shallows of the world of high heels. Under the surface, there’s tension that comes with wearing high heels for women that this book really took the time to spell out. Even going as far back as the Greek myth of Daphne, where for as long as a woman is pursued, there will be obstacles that slow her down, whereas Daphane was turned into a tree, high heels now are a tool to slow down the modern woman and make them objects.

Further, the idea of women are told to wear the shoe, even though it is uncomfortable, and causes pain, and the fact that we can’t acknowledge it in social settings is even more obvious when we see the history of the high heel, like in the original Grimm fairy tale of Cinderella, or Andersen’s Little Mermaid. Now, we must be in pain, walk slower, and also be at fault for when we are assaulted.

Of course, I don’t think everyone is going to agree with the assessment that women are required to wear high heels, or agree that they have to wear them because of the patriarchy, and that is valid. In my experience, if you’ve ever worn high heels and felt some sort of power then you know why you want to wear them. This book makes you pause to evaluate your motivations–is it really for yourself or to please the patriarchy? Why should I have to only feel powerful in painful shoes? Am I trained to think less of pain, and more of beauty?

Overall, I found this a quick read that was interesting and well thought out. I wasn’t a fan of the structure, but it was easy to read past that. Looking forward to reading other books in this series and by this author. Check out The Oyster War by the author, which is a fascinating micro-history/politics surrounding a small California town, a private oyster business, and the Parks Department of the U.S.

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