In February, Marina Larroudé got dressed up to go out to dinner in her Upper East Side neighborhood in New York. The weather was still wintry, but the designer, who recently launched her eponymous shoe brand, was determined to wear a heel from her new collection.
“My son, who is seven and has seen me wear high heels his entire life, said to me, ‘Oh Mommy, you look high!'” Larroudé recalled with a laugh. “We were so used to wearing them in the past and feeling confident, tall and sexy, having the posture that comes with it. All of a sudden, after not wearing them for a year, when I put them on again, he saw that confidence, that height. We didn’t realize the power they had.”
Larroudé is not alone. Now as spring melts both the restraints of winter weather and the confinements of pandemic quarantine as vaccinations roll out, high-heel wearers across the U.S. are likely looking into their closets, assessing their options. If the chaos of Miami Beach’s spring break bacchanal is any indication, pent up demand for celebration is alive and well — and that zest will call for fashion to match it (responsibly, one hopes). What fashion item is more symbolic of revelry than the high heel?
From designers to shoppers and everyone in between, the consensus is that the high heel’s return is certain and imminent. (Some might argue that the style never left as evidenced by the demand for Amina Muaddi’s signature martini heels over the past year, even in the depths of lockdown.)
But how will we wear them now, after a year at home — and a year of turmoil? After the pandemic, building back the high heel is a question not just of festivity or taste, but also one of how we’ll redesign entire lifestyles moving forward.
For some, the answer is based on pure, raw emotion. “I think everyone wants a bit of a lift, and I tend to go with my gut. We all want to be dreaming a little bit,” said designer Maria Cornejo, who included sensible — but significant — wooden block heels in her Zero + Maria Cornejo fall ’21 collection. “We didn’t sell a lot of heels (last year), we sold more of the styles you can wear at home. But we can’t give up. That’s the whole point of fashion, to dream a little bit and take ourselves out of the doldrums.”
“We are so used to practical shoes that craving a crazy pair of heels is just a natural reaction,” said Mary Alice Malone of Malone Souliers. While the designer herself has spent most of the past year in flats while working from home and spending time with her young daughter, she has also made a point of wearing heels on designated date nights with her husband.
As much as it represents celebration and festivity, the high heel also stands as a symbol of tradition — for better or worse. A handful of women alleging that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo demands a specific dress code — that always includes a high heel — is indicative of the literal and figurative restraints and connotations the shoe still holds for women — a modern comparison to the corset. Contrast the footwear choices of the most powerful woman in the U.S. — Vice President Kamala Harris, who often wears sneakers in public — with the towering, stiletto pumps of former first lady Melania Trump. It’s easy to see that the shoe can come with some cultural baggage, itself a symbol of identity politics and the shifting stations of women.
For most women and high-heel wearers, though, footwear choices will come down to practicality, not politics. During the Presidential Inauguration, First Lady Jill Biden rotated two different pairs of Jimmy Choo pumps, which many fellow high heel wearers (regardless of party preference) saw as a familiar indicator of discomfort, akin to the footwear rotations seen at formal events such as weddings (in the end, many just take off their shoes altogether, going barefoot on a late-night dance floor).
“When women do start going back to events, they are going to feel differently about what they want to wear,” said podiatrist and shoe designer Marion Parke. “Perhaps they are not going to want to go back to the high heel as they have traditionally come to know it.”
Parke’s six-year-old line has always focused on styles built to distribute weight evenly on the foot, but she emphasizes elegance over the clunky shapes that orthopedic shoes have adopted over the years. “What’s growing now is this category of bringing together wearability and fashion,” said Parke. “The woman we appeal to is very cerebral, but she also appreciates a beautiful shoe. She is also smart enough to say, ‘I don’t want to look like a fool, I want to be composed and not distracted by my shoe choice. I want to be present.’ You can wear high heels in a smarter way.”
For Parke, that philosophy applies not just to high heels but to all shoes, and for spring ’21, she has developed a line of flat sandals that support the medial arch — something that doesn’t exist often in the style, which is often made of a piece of cardboard wrapped in leather. “A lot of brands think a flat or loafer is already comfortable, but they are often not built with mid-foot support,” she said.
Most designers are looking at ways to jazz up styles that have traditionally seemed less glamorous, taking things downs a notch from the razor-sharps stilettos of the past, which had already fallen somewhat out of fashion from the last decade even before the pandemic. For spring ’21, Parke is banking on more of the same from last year, namely outdoor dining, garden parties, fire pits and the wedge sandals and flats that accompany those activities.
Malone is focused on a combat boot, which will also carry over to fall/winter (“long walks in the park are definitely the 2021 trend”), while designer Chloe Gosselin has lowered her average heel height offering, herself preferring a kitten-heel mule for some day-to-day glamour. “As a mom, running around, I won’t be wearing a heel all day anyway,” said Gosselin. “At the beginning (when I launched my brand) I had crazy high heels, but I’ve taken them down now a bit, and added options like block heels.”
On the runways, the big brands seemed to be following in the same practicality-focused footsteps, even if the message is more focused on joy and a return to normal life. The simple act of swapping a stiletto heel for a more sturdy block heel, which many New York designers did for fall ’21, means glamour and comfort can go hand-in-hand. The now-ubiquitous combat boot has taken on a whole new identity now that Valentino has shown them with evening gowns and other rarified looks, building on the notion that beauty is both in the eye of the beholder and ever-evolving. Prada’s silhouette of the season will be the platform — for both its men’s and women’s collections.
Even Christian Louboutin, king of stilettos, offered a lower, block-heeled alternative to his classic red pump for fall ’21, debuting a strappy, patent-leather Mary Jane in the same preening, lipstick-red hue as a classic So Kate high heel (those who have been paying attention know that the designer has been slyly offering these equally glam alternatives for years now).
“I think the return of the high heel translates to the return of the platform heel – something wearable and right,” said Caroline Maguire, Shopbop’s fashion director, who herself spent the past year at home with her family in flats and slippers, no heels whatsoever. Maguire noted that overall, the online retailer’s shoppers have been seeking out subtler heel options in the form of kitten and block heels, and she predicts easy-to-wear styles such as mules and slides to dominate the spring ’21 that is kicking into gear.
“There is a fine line between what is considered editorial beauty and what the customer is actually going to wear in their daily life,” she said. “How comfortable and wearable the high heel is will definitely affect the shoe’s position in our closets going forward.”