The Clothes That Bind

Walking through the slushy snow of London yesterday, I was struck by the number of couples I saw, in which the woman was walking nervously, carefully along, holding on to her male partner for support.

Now having a feminist turn of mind, I found myself wondering why this was the case. Are women inherently less skilled at moving on ice? The female-dominated sport of figure skating seems to show that this is not the case. Perhaps, then, the couples were conforming to standard ideals of masculinity and femininity, with the woman exaggerating her role as the helpless damsel in distress, and the man acting the part of her gallant protector? While I’m sure this dynamic does indeed play out in many relationships, and is worth a whole blog post in itself, the answer in this case was breathtakingly simple. All I had to do was look downwards.

The shoes were the culprit. While the men were, for the most part, wearing boots or trainers, the women’s shoes varied widely. I spotted the inevitable high heels, ballet flats, boots with spindly heels, and furry “winter boots”, which look pretty and wintery but absorb water like a sponge. What all these shoes had in common was that they were blatantly unsuitable for walking in snow. So why were women wearing them?

I’m not for a second ridiculing these women for their choice of footwear. I too, have been (for many years) blind to the absurdity of inappropriate shoes, and have suffered for it. I’ve put on 4-inch heels for a night out dancing, even when I knew that I would regret it by the end of the night. On those occasions I would then proceed to experience the awful ball-of-the-foot pain that most women are familiar with, meaning that my enjoyment decreased as the night wore on, to the point where forgetting about the pain was an impossibility. It took quite a few of these experiences to finally make me promise myself to make comfort a priority, and I’ve gained a bit of a reputation for choosing to wear trainers to clubs. But that’s the thing – departing from the norm had to be a conscious decision. There are clothing expectations of women, just as there are for men. Women will wear women’s clothes and footwear, and ditto for men. So the question isn’t really ‘why are women choosing to wear these shoes’, but rather- why is the shoe fashion for women the way it is?

Clothes have always played a big part in the oppression of women. In 19th century Britain, impossibly tiny waists were the fashion, and women had to lace themselves into the tightest corsets to achieve that look. In the Chicago Tribune, this practice was denounced:

“THE SLAVES OF FASHION, through Long Centuries Women Have Obeyed Her Whims

It is difficult to imagine a slavery more senseless, cruel or far-reaching in its injurious consequences than that imposed by fashion on civilized womanhood during the last generation. … the tight lacing required by the wasp waist has produced generations of invalids and bequeathed to posterity suffering that will not vanish for many decades. … And in order to look stylish, thousands of women wear dress waist so tight that no free movement of the upper body is possible; indeed in numbers of instances, ladies are compelled to put their bonnets on before attempting the painful ordeal of getting into glove-fitting dress waists.”

Before the 20th century, fashionable women in China were required to have their feet bound, breaking the bones and preventing further growth, forcing them into tiny ‘lotus shoes’, all in order to make them look more dainty and feminine. In “Splendid Slippers; A Thousand Years of an Erotic Tradition” by Beverley Jackson, one of the reasons for its appeal is explained:

“For men, the primary erotic effect was a function of the lotus gait, the tiny steps and swaying walk of a woman whose feet had been bound. Women with such deformed feet avoided placing weight on the front of the foot and tended to walk predominantly on their heels. As a result, women who underwent foot-binding walked in a careful, cautious, and unsteady manner.”

Besides the pain and discomfort that such fashions cause women, it can also lead to needless loss of life. A book by Kat Banyard, The Equality Illusion, cites an example. In 1991, when Bangladesh was hit by a cyclone, 90% of the casualties were women. One of the reasons for this was that women were not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied by a male relative. The other reason was that their clothes made it difficult for them to run or swim to safety.

Nor should we think that repressive clothing rests in the domain of history and the non-Western world. Let’s have a look at some of the clothes that most Western women today have worn at least a few times in their lives:

-skirts so tight that taking large strides is impossible
-dresses so low-cut that one avoids bending over
-high heels that cause pain and limit mobility
-skirts so short we have to cross our legs when we sit, and again refrain from bending over, to avoid accidental exposure

It almost seems as though, while designing women’s fashion, there have been two rules of thumb:

1. Does the item of clothing in question enhance her sexual desirability?
2. Is the item of clothing physically or psychologically restrictive enough to ensure that she doesn’t behave in an overly boisterous fashion, thereby undermining her ‘femininity’?

Even young girls fall victim to it. Placed in pink, frilly, poofy dresses from a young age, how can she be expected to run around, climb trees and play ball the way her brothers do? Parents often croon about how much more active their sons are, compared to their daughters. How can she possibly be as active as they are, when she is hampered by layers and layers of material, coupled with advice to sit ‘like a lady’ (read: don’t move too much) while wearing the dress?

But since we were talking about shoes, let’s get back to that. A post on this blog covers the history and appeal of high heels rather well, and contains the following sentence: “high-heels alter the tilt of the pelvis, resulting in more prominence of the buttocks and displaying of the breasts, creating a “come-hither pose” also described by Rossi as the “pouter pigeon” pose, “with lots of breast and tail balanced precariously on a pair of stilts.” Now that sounds chillingly like the reason for the popularity of foot binding.

Also of note in her post are the health repercussions of wearing heels, with the statistic that (according to the American Academy of Othopaedic Surgeons) women are 9 times more likely to develop a foot problem due to their shoes than men are. In a study from the Journal of Applied Physiology, it is shown that frequent walking in high heels shortens fibres in the calf muscle, which makes the Achilles tendon stiffen instead of flex with each step. Over time, the natural position of the foot changes, and wearing flats to exercise actually increases their risk of injury. I could go on about the damage high heels do to our feet, but simply googling “high heel injury” would give a wealth of information which would be too extensive to fit into this blog. Suffice to say that, while not as drastic in its effects as whalebone corsets or lotus shoes, the practice of wearing high heels to appear attractive falls into the same patterns of physical restrictions, and the altering of women’s bodies for the sake of fashion.

I would love to proclaim, “Let us dump these inane fashions immediately and embrace comfort forevermore!” but unfortunately I know it isn’t so easy. Many of us work in environments where high heels are part of the dress code, and wearing flats may make one appear less professional, less attractive in the eyes of clients. Insisting on wearing comfy shoes everywhere, even to dinner parties and balls, may cause society to label one as an eccentric. But I suppose I’d ask this question. Should an emergency occur, should a fire break out in the building, should a murderer go on a rampage, should a natural disaster strike– do we really want to find ourselves in a dress and high heels?

10 thoughts on “The Clothes That Bind

  1. The other aspect of ‘fashion binding women’ that bothers me is the potential imprisonment in an economic sense. I know there are lots of women who will tell you how much they love shoes and feel empowered by owning 50+ pairs (not an exaggeration for some women – I have a couple of friends who have at least this many). But they’ve spent thousands of dollars on these shoes, at the expense of other areas of their life. It’s not just shoes – it’s clothes too for some women. (I think there are some women who are actually addicted to continuously buying more and more clothes!)

    Of course everyone is entitled to spend their money on whatever they like, but I question how much of a woman’s desire to constantly buy clothes she doesn’t need stems from societal pressure to be fashionable, wear a new outfit every time she sees her friends, etc. Maybe in some cases it’s even an emotional replacement for an empty life.


    • I agree completely. We live in a society where a woman’s outer appearance is valued more highly than anything else about her, and thus it’s no surprise that women ‘choose’ to spend money on things that improve her appearance, at the expense of other forms of fulfilment. With a complete overhaul of society’s values, I’m sure we’d see a large shift in the financial choices of many women.


  2. I’ve been meaning to write about high heels. I’m currently trying to learn to walk in them for extended periods of time – so so painful, and it takes me forever to walk anywhere, but I guess my legs look awesome in them? I find them antifeminist but I work in an office and it’s expected and I hate myself for it. Yay.

    I also read this (incredibly anger-inducing) article today:
    It complains that women “flaunt” themselves in revealing clothes and are therefore asking to be ogled. While, obviously, I have huge huge problems with the author’s arguments (and will be writing about them soon!) it also lead me to think about what is actually available for women to buy. You can barely buy a women’s business shirt that buttons all the way up, for example. Everything is form-fitting or revealing so even if we didn’t want to “flaunt” ourselves, we’d have to stop buying women’s clothes.

    Gah. Slightly off point, I know. But you got me thinking! Apparently women don’t deserve practical clothes or shoes.


  3. I tried to wear high heels for a couple of days, but quickly stopped. As I was walking with my partner, I realized I couldn’t walk as fast, or as steadily as usual, and though I got tons of compliments about how put together and professional I looked, I was not comfortable in them.

    I realized that if anyone wanted to chase me, I’d lose. That I might hurt myself along the way. I was hindering my very mobility to look professional.


  4. I have recently (in the last several months) given up heels, largely in favor of Vibram FiveFingers. (Yes, the creepy toe shoes.) I’m not trying to claim that they’re fabulous for everybody, but they’ve been very good to me: my feet, calves, thighs, hips, and back. I’ve spent some time convincing my supervisors at work (who were willing but needing to be convinced) that since my job requires a great deal of walking and movement (squatting, kneeling, etc.), my “professional dress” should include shoes that facilitate this kind of mobility rather than hinder it.


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