Heels: how high is too high for work? (Featuring fascinating footwear facts)
Staring at those six-inch stiletto heels sitting your closet and wondering whether you can get away with them in the office? Maybe. It depends on where you work.
Before we get into the related guidelines, here’s something you can use in conversation around the watercooler:
These days, yes, high heels are generally seen as an attractive – OK, sexy – footwear choice for women, but history tells a different story. High heels can actually be traced back to the 9th century, when savvy Persian horsemen used them to help keep their feet in their stirrups, and it wasn’t until the late 1500s that higher heeled footwear caught on amongst the male and female aristocracy and upper classes in Europe. In the 1670s, vertically challenged monarch Louis XIV of France literally and figuratively raised his stature in court with custom-made crimson high heels, and until the 19th century, high heels worn by both men and women were symbols of status and power. After all, heels were impractical, delicate, and terrible for trudging through dirt or mud – perfect for long days being admired and waited on by servants.
Fast forward to the Victorian period, when changing fashions revealed women’s feet and ankles and made men’s footwear more utilitarian. High heels began developing their modern, more feminine connotations in the late 1800s, and by the turn of the last century, they were pretty much exclusively a girl thing.
Except for the Cuban heeled Beatle boots and glam platforms of the 60s and 70s, Western men’s footwear has mostly steered away from shoes that elevate more than a modest inch or so, while entire industries are now built around women’s love of the highest heels. For many of us (raising my hand here), they’re an indispensible closet staple – but should we always indulge in our heel-love in the workplace?
OK, the guidelines: here are the three heel rules you should definitely follow when trying to figure out how high is too high for work.
1. Respect your work culture
Sorry, diehard heel-lovers, but do allow the norms of your workplace to determine the height of your heels. Of course, the same rules don’t apply everywhere; government offices are notoriously lower-heeled environs, as are most conservative businesses. But when I worked for a national fashion magazine, many of the female staff regularly tottered around in 4-inch spike heels festooned with feathers, arbitrary buckles and rhinestones – and that was perfectly acceptable (part of the job, in fact). In general, it’s wise to take your cues from the ankle-down profile of your senior colleagues and managers – if the boss lady is rocking towering heels, there’s a greater chance that you might be able to get away with it, too.
2. Assess your heels’ impact
In an ideal world, every working woman – every crop top-, miniskirt- and chainmail-wearing employee – would be evaluated solely on the basis of her skills and competencies in the workplace. Alas, we don’t live in an ideal world, and what we wear elicits judgement whether we like it or not. It’s a prickly subject, but the truth is undeniable: higher heels are a potent symbol of female sexual power. Ultimately, of course, you should wear what makes you feel good, but it’s smart to assess the impact your footwear will have on your clients, your colleagues, and your bosses.
One recent, albeit controversial, French study suggests that the higher a woman’s heel height, the more men will help and pay attention to her. What’s your experience?
3. Plan to walk a mile in those shoes
Well, if not a mile, then the distance back and forth to your boss’ office at least a dozen times, to that new Thai restaurant, to that meeting three blocks away – you get the idea. Regardless of where you work, it’s essential to choose a heel height that allows you to move freely, comfortably, and – maybe most importantly – well. Hobbling, wobbling and limping by 3pm hurts your feet, of course, but it also won’t inspire confidence in your coworkers or bosses. If your heels are too high to spend a competent workday moving around, communicating, having brilliant ideas and just generally kicking butt at your job, you probably need to leave them at home.