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High hopes: Has our love affair with heels hit an all-time low?

Love them as we do, there’s no escaping the fact that high heels take a determined mindset to wear. They may lengthen your legs and make you walk like a catwalk model – and, of course, men love ’em – but in lockdown they died a sudden death.

But their demise was evident way before the pandemic. It’s a sad truth that high heels have been losing popularity for some time now, but Covid accelerated the trend. While the pandemic has hit the overall footwear market, dress shoes are the ones suffering the most.

According to research firm NPD Group, sales of dress shoes, including stilettos, dropped by 71% in the second quarter of 2020. Here are three main reasons why.

1. The rise of comfort shoes

The decline of high heels can be attributed to the rise of comfort shoes. For the last few years, footwear collections have become considerably more comfort-focused, catering to the demands of an increasingly modern, nonchalant society.

For example, last year Lyst, a global fashion search engine, said that searches for Birkenstock sandals went up by 225%. Trainers, slippers, and slides have also been on the rise during the pandemic.

This transformation can be also linked to the casualisation of the working environment and the norms that dictate what is appropriate and respectable in such a formal space like the office. With the rise of athleisure – casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use – and pandemic-induced work-from-home policies, comfort seems to have replaced couture. 

2. The risk of injuries

High heels are known to be harmful to the feet. Constant wearing of high heels can damage the bone structure and even result in injuries like hallux valgus (bunion) and hammered toe.

According to Vytautas Kimtys, expert surgeon at Nordorthopaedics Clinic, a leading orthopedic surgery clinic for medical tourists in Lithuania, such injuries require serious medical attention and, most often, an intervention.

“When wearing high heels, the feet are put in the most unnatural position, which over time causes a variety of deformations in the structure of the feet,” he said. “Most of the time people with hammer toes, bunions, and other injuries require surgery to release or tighten tendons and ligaments, because chances are they have been ignoring the developing deformities for far too long. Thus, it is especially important to seek medical attention when you notice even the slightest discomfort from wearing high heels.”

3. Feminist statement

Clothing choices are not only about fashion or comfort, but also about making a statement. Traditionally, high heels have been seen as a way to express women’s sexuality or power, but lately this trend has been fading away.

The transformation is mainly to do with the arrival of what social scientists call the fourth wave of feminism. Seeking to create gender equality and empower women, the new feminists also aim to change stereotypical standards, including the glamourisation of wearing high heels.

The rise of flats like wedge boots, Doc Martens, sandals and flip-flops can also be seen as a feminist statement going against high heels.

But, if heels are your thing, don’t despair! Fashion is cyclical and what goes around, comes around, again and again, so don’t throw out those skyscrapers just yet. My prediction is that women will be falling over themselves (hmm!) to wear heels when lockdown is finally over.

Diane Cooke
Diane Cooke is a three times award-winning journalist who has worked for UK national/regional newspapers, magazines and websites.

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