After a decade of vertiginous and ruinously expensive heels that have crippled our feet and hobbled our bank balances, female sentiments about flat shoes have been changing.
Women who were previously stiletto slaves, are being seduced by ballet pumps, brogues, and monk shoes.
Maybe it’s the corns, calluses and lower-back pain, or perhaps in more austere financial times high heels seem strangely decadent, but flat shoes are now firmly established as a fashionable wardrobe staple. While flats will never have the transformative power of high heels, (Manolo Blahnik has called his shoes “the quickest way for women to achieve instant metamorphosis”) they are now increasingly seen as chic.
Most women enjoy a slightly obsessive relationship with shoes, and in the past 20 years this obsession has blossomed, with women indulging their inner Imelda Marcos by accumulating a wardrobe of shoes of all shapes, designs, and heel heights. Designer brands once considered exotic — Jimmy Choo and Gucci — are dropped casually into conversation and even Irish men can identify the red soles on a pair of Louboutins. The majority of these designer brands have built their fortunes on the sale of seriously high and seriously expensive shoes: Louboutin even identified the stiletto as “a feminine weapon that men don’t have”.
The Celtic Tiger and high heels went together flawlessly: all those fabulous bar to car shoes designed for a decadent social life where excess was nothing exceptional and everybody was taxied or chauffeured everywhere.
Now poorer, wiser, and having to walk or cycle, we have adopted flats as a fashionable alternative.
Ballet pumps were the first flats to get female pulses quickening in a manner usually associated with stilettos. They first gained in popularity from about 2007 and are still selling in huge volume today, despite sniffy fashionistas declaring their demise. Brigitte Bardot first made ballet pumps sexy: a trained ballet dancer, she commissioned Repetto to make her a pair of crimson flats for the infamous Mambo scene in And God Created Woman. Overnight both she and the shoes were a hit.
To this day, Repetto are still the quintessential ballet shoe. Fashionistas may covet luxury versions by Chanel, Lanvin, and Alaia but most of us wear affordable pairs from Zara, H&M, and Pretty Ballerinas.
The best pairs have a lowish vamp that reveals an alluring flash of toe cleavage — both naughty and nice at once.
After ballet pumps had made flats acceptable to stylish women, the hunt was on for the next fashionable incarnation.
The brogue soon emerged as the unlikely successor. Alexa Chung is a fan and frequently sports a pair worn with ankle socks and bare legs.
Brogues are derived from the Irish for shoe, bróg. They were traditionally sturdy for outdoor pursuits with a toecap and perforations. Now they are seen on the most fabulous feminine feet — Agness Deyn, Saoirse Ronan, and Emily Watson have all been spotted in brogues.
First adopted by celebrities such as Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Lauren Hutton, brogues have always appealed to tomboys and free spirits. They must be chosen carefully as brogues that are too chunky can be very unflattering especially to those with “cankles”, but can look really sexy when worn with cropped trousers and tanned bare ankles.
Now, for spring, there is a new flat to covet, promoted by the queen of heels, Victoria Beckham. She shod her models for her spring/summer catwalk, in flat, double-buckled monk shoes designed by Manolo Blahnik. Simple even austere, when she wore them in public herself last November, there was an immediate rush of commentary on social media sites and fashion blogs.
The trend for luxury sportswear and the revival of 90s minimalism have given the popularity of flats a new momentum. With super stylist Katie Grand designing a range of fluorescent sneakers for Hogan and Tods extending the range of colours available in their iconic car shoe, stylish flats are trending on relieved feet everywhere.
British Vogue has even declared the humble Birkenstock, the shoe of the season after Celine showed a mink lined, jewel encrusted version (a dazzling €700) for spring.
The magazine has styled a classic white pair (a more democratic €70) with slouchy white trousers for their March edition. The Birkenstock sandal was launched in 1964, though it wasn’t seen as a “fashion” shoe until the 1990s.
A cautionary note — although flat shoes are reassuringly comfy, some support is necessary.
The wrong flat shoes can be just as damaging to your feet as towering stilettos: plodding around in utterly flat pumps with no arch support can cause severe foot pain, bunions, backache, and even arthritis.
Apparently the ideal heel height is about 1” and shuffling around in lower heights can ruin your posture. Flat shoes can cause the feet to roll inwards, stretching ligaments and tendons, thereby pulling toes out of alignment, resulting in severe pain.
A wag once declared that if high heels were so wonderful, men would be wearing them.
Regardless of the truth of this observation, women will never abandon their heel obsession entirely, but now the current fetish for flats means there is a viable alternative. And maybe just maybe, austerity has made us all a little more sensible.