Are we walking away from high heels?

Sneakers and slippers are more useful at home, where we have all been working during the lockdown, leaving heels flat out of options, writes Annmarie O’Connor
Are we walking away from high heels?

Model Kendall Jenner presents a creation for Versace’ Women Fall - Winter 2020 fashion collection on February 21, 2020, in Milan.

Rumour has it the high heel is dead. Some blame the global pandemic; others predicted its decline years ago.

I’d like to see the ‘toe tag’. Since our lives locked down, we’ve wanted the comfort zone and the bare necessities.

The thought of wearing toe-pinching obelisks after months of slippers, slides, and sandals may be a wardrobe watershed.

Flattening the proverbial curve hasn’t just rewired how we live; it has reimagined the meaning of what we wear.

This emerging paradigm, arguably enshrined by the quorum of quarantine — working from home, staycations, and social distancing — has its roots in the cultural corrections of the past several years, from fourth-wave feminism to gender fluidity.

Shifts in company cultures, coupled with our sped-up, blended lives, have also contributed to less-prescriptive dress codes. Comfort is at its core.

Market research supports this.

The sales of trainers overtook those of high heels for the first time in 2016 (Mintel). 

Birkenstock’s revenue tripled in 2017, with 2020 Q2 sales of the Arizona sandal jumping by 225% (Lyst). And foam clogs, Crocs, held steady at $1bn (€850m) to $1.2bn (€1bn) annually since 2011 (The Business of Fashion).

‘Ugly fashion’ iconoclasts, such as the Teva® hiking sandal and pool slide, became hot social media fodder, with iterations from brands such as Prada and Gucci selling for up to €650 a pair.

Fast forward to the Zoom-saturated, remote-working, localised ‘new normal’ of 2020 and the burning question remains: Can heels rise from the ashes of the pandemic?

Louise Stuart Trainor, fashion insights and innovation consultant, is cautious.

“Though some have predicted a raucous return to party dressing, as a result of the prolonged restrictions, echoing the debauchery of the 1920s,” Ms Stuart Trainor says, “it seems, for most, any thoughts of hedonism are premature.

“High heels feel out of place in this new cultural shift, where the home and the outdoors are the key lifestyle spaces,” she says.

“As the park becomes the permanent alternative to the gym and hiking holidays replace Ibiza clubbing, comfortable trainers and sensible sandals are trumping more glamorous alternatives.”

Agreed.

Working from home, where slippers and flats are more practical, has dispensed with the need for heels.
Working from home, where slippers and flats are more practical, has dispensed with the need for heels.

Although parallels have been drawn between the need for escapism and the rising popularity of high heels during recessions —such as the 2008 financial crisis, the Great Depression, the 1970s energy crisis, and the dot-com bubble burst — the coronavirus climate does, indeed, feel different.

Niche success stories, like Amina Muaddi — whose capsule line of crystal-embellished party shoes for luxury online retailer, MyTheresa, sold out in hours mid-pandemic — may be Forbes-worthy, but in the world of public transport versus private planes, the reality falls flat.

Home-schooling your children, conducting conference calls from the kitchen table, cooking every meal (sometimes all at once): When the world demands you step up, it best be done in comfortable shoes.

As Carolyn Mair, PhD,behavioural psychologist and author of The Psychology of Fashion, says, “During the pandemic, many women turned to athleisure and elasticated-waisted trousers, flat shoes, and even slippers, as their go-to clothing when working from home, because their intentions were to get the job/s done.”

“Although we associate formal business attire with professionalism and conscientiousness, it turns out, unsurprisingly, that we can produce work of equal quality whether we are dressed in business attire and high heels or joggers and slippers,” Ms Mair says.

Fashion psychologist and founder of fashionispsychology.com, Shakaila Forbes-Bell, agrees.

“Some surveys (canvas8.com) have shown that since lockdown, one in eight people would rather have a casual office dress code than earn more money... It’s no surprise, as comfortable clothing/footwear has been shown to have a positive impact on cognition, meaning that it can help you focus more on your work,” Ms Forbes-Bell says.

The result? Women are starting to question the ‘why’ behind what they buy, the ‘where’ behind what they wear (does a home office demand heels?) and, ultimately, who, in fact, benefits.

Model, Kaia Gerber, presents a creation for Versace’ Women Fall - Winter 2020 fashion collection, on February 21, 2020, in Milan. Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
Model, Kaia Gerber, presents a creation for Versace’ Women Fall - Winter 2020 fashion collection, on February 21, 2020, in Milan. Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

Practicality notwithstanding, there is a certain joy to wearing heels — the inverse to getting the job done; a delicious frippery that comes with dressing up in something other than loungewear.

It begs the question: Will we ever have fun with fashion again?

“Covid-19 has forced a lot of people to re-evaluate the things they own,” says Forbes-Bell. 

“I predict the high-heel market may benefit from post-lockdown revenge-buying, but the shoes that are both comfortable and stylish will be the most-coveted.”

‘Revenge-buying’ — the impulse to shop post-quarantine — became a snazzy epithet when French fashion luxury brand, Hermes, recorded single-day shopping sales of $2.7m (€2.3m) on the April reopening of its Guangzhou flagship stores in China.

Although typically applied to non-essential purchases, perhaps the concept of splurging and future-proofing our footwear could find commonality.

If the autumn/winter 2020-21 catwalks are an indication, there are plenty of grounded options that synthesise style and substance. 

Chunky trend sole boots, at Valentino and Stella McCartney, allude to future festivals and present climate change.

Brogue, Oxford, loafer, and monk styles worn with chunky socks, at Chloé and Hermés, prove their heft, while Mary Jane-style kitten heels and pointy ballet flats make for retro realness at Marc Jacobs. 

Versace high heels by Jason Lloyd Evans.
Versace high heels by Jason Lloyd Evans.

Sneakers maintain their cachet, especially in 1980s-style iterations at Marni and Coach 1941.

For the hardened homebody, JW Anderson serves up chain-embellished, cork-soled mules, and fuzzy slippers in louche leopard print.

As lockdown restrictions loosen and mobility increases, this middle ground may well be the height of style — for the meantime, at least.

Shelly Corkery, fashion director at luxury department store, Brown Thomas, sees the bigger picture: “I think we’ll move towards more transitional styles, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic and, gradually, the high heel will find its way back. 

"Designers have already moved towards this trend, be it with mid-height slingbacks, square-toe mules, or chunky-heeled ankle boots.”

Until we shed the prevailing culture of restraint, high heels will remain the mainstay of fantasy footwear — leagues of stilettos, mules, and strappy sandals worn for virtual social seasons of Zoom cocktail parties, balcony boogies, and back-garden dinners. 

Sometimes, it’s the stuff of dreams, though, that helps us navigate reality.

There’s meaning in that, for sure.

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