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November 25, 2017
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Rad Hourani Boots. (Source: claudia-cifu.blogspot.com)

I may have told this story once already this week, but I'm still thinking about it. A handful of nights ago, my eyes fell on a boy. I don't think I've ever had a conversation with him, nor do I know what he aspires to be, or what he does for work. But, I found myself conflicted about what he was wearing: platinum hair in a '90s slickback, a fitted blazer, sequined harem pants (one of the apparent modern-day marks of the so-called "man repeller"), and a pair of chunky, platform-esque high-heeled shoes.

I know I'm not alone when I say I find the look of a man in heels gripping; the idea itself, however, is polarising. I've long championed the cause that a man should wear what he wants if that's what he wants - heels, sequins, make-up, bleached hair, whatever. I feel the same way about anyone really - forget gender norms. But even my worst bias sometimes insists: does the look come off as stupid or stylish? Maybe it makes him feel sexy? (I would love to die feeling sexy.) Conversation footnotes among other curious sub-groups of groups - in between talk that's almost always loquacious about either nail art, Lana Del Rey, or the Milan collections  - revealed that some fashion-forwards I know found his efforts a little silly, not daring. Of course, opinions always circle around to: "Don’t get me wrong - it can look good…if done right."

Will we reach an era - within our lifetimes, or ever - when men will be able to openly wear the footwear they want? Does it need to be "heterosexualized" before it can become accepted?

Let's rewind. It's important to note that an integral narrative in the history of this footwear category is that high heels weren't always exclusive to females. As far back as Egyptian civilizations, murals point to religious ceremonies or upper-class nobility indulging in the precursor to what would now be considered the modern-day equivalent of a high heel; butchers wore similar shoes to rise above the draining animal blood. During the Middle Ages, shoes known as pattens (wooden soles) were worn to protect more expensive footwear. Centuries later, in France, King Louis XIV is famously known for declaring that only the aristocracy could wear heels, but none higher than his own (until Napoleon banned them). Yet, while the high-heeled shoe was used as a tool of oppression against lower social classes (and still is), it has also served as a marker for women's sexuality and gender, mostly with negative connotations. In ancient Rome, the footwear was often used to identify female prostitutes, where the practice was legal. In China and Turkey, some scholars speculate that high shoes were used as a means to prevent women from quickly escaping or wandering harems, ultimately attributed to associations with submission and domination. (For a complete, utterly fascinating history, refer to this.)

Indeed, while earlier incarnations of the heeled shoe may have served slightly functional purposes throughout pockets of history, they have almost always been used as a means to identify - and differentiate/discriminate/oppress between - economic class, ethnicity, and sexuality. More importantly, the socio-cultural perceptions of the heel have been modified and constructed over centuries to decidedly reveal gender: women wear heels, men do not. No, I am not a woman; I can never fully speak to the reality of what it's like, especially because I've never tried on a proper pair of my own, at least no taller than one inch. Although I may not be able to fully grasp any sort of love-hate-love relationship my female friends have with their footwear, I can empathize or at least be aware of why some women find the institution - a multi-million dollar business, really - a little problematic. It's a series of questions about gender expression and, consequently, about gender norms and identities. It's also a compelling debate about fashion, glamour, the expression of femininity (or "elegance"), empowerment and ("new") feminism. This 2009 article from the UK is an interesting look at the differentiating viewpoints and opinions that surround the lore of what high heels are really supposed to do: empower or demean? A large part of the debate acknowledges decreased abilities to walk properly or quickly ("without clutching a man"), and funnels down to the comfort level of the wearer. (Am I going to spend this money just to have swollen feet?) I have girlfriends who protest that wearing heels make them feel "sexy," or powerful - the two are not mutually exclusive, I've learned - and I have others who feel that very sexual power isn't fair, nor is it representative, of the deeper narrative and implications at work. It's a complex issue that - and I'll be frank - I wish I had more answers to. There is a myriad of enlightened, fascinating discourse about what heels (and, more broadly, fashion), mean to the feminist cause.

A few years ago, in 2009, Rad Hourani sent male models wearing heels down the runway. Before that, we had David Bowie, Prince, etc. A plethora of other glam-rock stars (singer Adam Lambert, figure skater Johnny Weir, comedian Russell Brand) have emerged since to test the waters and "make statements." It's all here, yes, in last October's New York Times piece declaring, "Men in pumps is a trend." A trend, mind you, not a statement - because something like this, surely, must come, but then it certainly must go. At least that's the impression we give to something when calling it a trend. Several articles have surfaced since noting that heels among men are indeed on the rise. It's always similar conclusions: the trend will never last, men can't handle the pain, it's fun to play dress-up but not in the real world, and so on. So far, I have yet to see the footwear, from stilettos to platforms, on many men who aren't gay, obvious references/allusions to drag culture aside. Perhaps it's really just an urban anomaly or restricted to high(er)-fashion circles, since the practice of donning heels emerged from club scenes long before they made it onto the runway.

Lenny Kravitz in Rick Owens  
(Source: vintageclothesdesignerdrugs).

And so, where do men in heels chart in the conversation? In September 2010, photos circulated across the Internet of singer Lenny Kravitz in New York wearing head-to-toe Rick Owens, the Paris-based fashion designer known for playing with gender shapes and, well, higher shoes for men. I love Owens to pieces, everything he does I find utterly clean and gender bending without looking too extreme. And then, I ask myself again, what do I define as "extreme"? (That is, of course, my own bias coming into play, I guess.) Yet, I wouldn't exactly qualify what Kravitz was wearing as "extreme." I thought it was brilliantly simple. The Internet? Not so much. What it prompoted literally makes one's mouth drop: the posts I came across, and the comments within them, attributed Kravitz to looking "like a girl", making fun of everything from the wedges to the messenger bag. (Similar sentiments came across in reader comments on the trend articles above.) Even in the most liberal industries/worlds, where clothing has always been used to express, to create, to have fun, to play a character or, for some, to make a statement, blogs and websites that would otherwise applaud a woman in a suit for still looking "fierce," were snidely dishing out digs for what the man was wearing. This post, for example, asked "Lenny Kravtiz in Lady Boots!?!?!?", another one led with the Rick Owens mention but quickly starts with condescending questions about mistaking his daughter's closet for his own or that maybe he's "trying to tell us something." Hmm. What's that famous line that goes something like, "you don't want to dress like a woman because you think being a woman is degrading." I wonder where people get that, and if, perhaps, it starts with the shoes - or are shoes the first step to mending that intellectual fault line?

In mid-January, when designer Tomas Maier, of Italian fashion house Bottega Veneta, sent down "colourful, high-heeled ankle boots" as part of its men's ready-to-wear FW 2012 collection in Milan, eyebrows raised, curiosities were tickled, and fantasies came true. A number of text messages and Tumblr links arrived containing what I so desperately search for each season on all the male runways: who's doing heels, who's doing them realistically (truth: we're not ready for five-inch, pin-thin heels for men in the mass market), and how the shoes are being presented in tandem with the rest of the collection. The Bottega Veneta show was well-received, lauded as relaxed and tasteful. It wasn't Galliano-esque, shrouded with makeup and theatrics. Simply put: Maier presented smart clothing for men, accompanied by heels that weren't just props, but something they could wear, say, outside the club.

But will we reach an era - within our lifetimes, or ever - when men will be able to openly wear the footwear they want? Does it need to be "heterosexualized" before it can become accepted? Had another designer, younger and riskier and more androgynous, done the same thing, would eyelashes bat or would sentiments go the way of Rad Hourani: "Oh, that's cool, and so 'avant-garde' for the sake of it so it's not serious"? With the proliferation, or at least the very introduction, of other not-typical-of-the-male-gender items like murses (man purses), meggings (male leggings), make-up, Spanx, etc., there are those still asking: when is enough enough? Again, the conversation usually ends with: is this stylish or silly? Is it necessary for men to experiment, or to take cues from women's fashions? Or will that just never happen, like, for real? If Kravitz's forays are any indication, it's troublesome and frustrating that a pair of shoes, or a bag even, is still twisted and used as a tool of oppression/ridicule, especially since it remains a perceived marker for sexual orientation. Kravitz is straight, but that didn't stop people from immediately calling him gay. Gay as if it were a bad thing, gay is if he were being too feminine, like as if that is also a bad, or even worse, thing - especially for a male rock icon. But, it could be about that "rock-and-roll masculinity", as WWD described the BV show, that's supposedly cool…now. (Sigh.)

When can it be just about a sick pair of shoes?

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