Fashion in Film: Heels

Sophia Satchell Baeza

Dangerous, shiny, seductive: high heels in cinema often indicate a character who is sexually attractive and in control, powerful yet vulnerable. Before I get all Sigmund Freud and penis envy on yo’ ass, let’s just say that the enlarged heel is thought to replace the woman’s missing penis, and suggests a denial of castration – ouch, um, oh just forget it.

But really, you needn’t look further than the shiny black heels of film noir’s femme fatales, with the likes of Lana Turner and Barbara Stanwyck. Uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, high heels bear the marks of gender performativity, hence their role in cross-dressing narratives (Some Like It Hot) and feminist films – watch out for a sharp heel in the crotch, if you step outta line.

Red high heels are a particularly cinematic feature. With allusions to Fleming’s Technicolor masterpiece The Wizard of Oz and Powell’s The Red Shoes, these flaming shoes signal a return to the homeland, and conjure up narratives of nostalgia, childhood and obsession. Shoes can also suggest a time period (think of those trashy '70s platforms), and they can also be a murder weapon. All this, in a humble high heel? Yup, and we haven’t even got to Sex and The City (don’t worry, we’re not going to).

1. The Gay Shoe Clerk (Porter/ Edison, 1903)

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Let’s kick things off with one of the first high heels in cinema, and a perfect example of the shoe fetish in action. In this three-shot, one minute gem, a woman gets fitted for a pair of two-inch heels, thus exposing her ankle (OI OI!) to a lusty shoe clerk. She thwacks him with an umbrella, for being a total cad.

2. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)

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Dorothy’s famous heeled ruby slippers started life as a pair of silver shoes in L. Frank Baum’s original novel. In order to take advantage of the improvements in Technicolor, they were turned red, so as to shine better on screen. The ultimate symbol of Americana and the prodigal return home, their effect has rippled in countless ways throughout cinema and fashion, most visibly in Lynch’s Wild at Heart and the red sequin showgirl heels of Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Apparently, Lady Gaga now has an original pair.

3. Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

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Right after a snarling Bobby Peru (played by a scene-stealing Willem Dafoe) sexually assaults Lula (Laura Dern), she desperately clicks her red high heels together in an allusion to Dorothy’s famous kicks. Instead of ‘going back to Kansas’, Lula is definitely still stuck in a sleazy motel.

4. Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

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Shoe references are, like, totally everywhere in this. At a Valley party, some douche spills Coke on Cher’s satin shoes (“Eurgh! This is not fixable”). The high point of a day at high school turns out to be breaking into her purple clogs. She screws up a driving class (“You try driving in platforms”). But it’s Cher’s white T-bar Mary Janes’ that remain the ultimate '90s accessory. Nice stems!

5. High Heels (Tacones Lejanos, Pedro Almodovar, 1991)

Pedro Almodóvar’s characters often appear in a classy pair of heels. For example, high heels are the reason for Penelope Cruz’s fall down a flight of stairs in Broken Embraces (2009). Hysterical TV presenter Pepa (Carmen Maura)’s red heels and power suits are an iconic look in Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown (1988). In High Heels, the shoes become a site for discussions on gender performativity, stylistic excess and the memory of the mother.

6. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

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Marilyn Monroe plays the kooky singer and ukelele player Sugar Kane (could this be an early example of cinema’s Manic Dream Pixie Girl?). Her curvaceous wobble on high heels to catch a train remains an iconic cinematic moment of female sexuality. Watching Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon negotiate femininity in high heels reinforces this performance:  “How do they every manage to walk in these things?” “I guess their weight is distributed differently”.

7. The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, 2005) 

Gretchen Mol plays fetish and bondage model and pin-up star Bettie Page in Haddon’s biopic. Expect lots of kinky shots of stiletto heels, my friends.

8. The Seven Year Itch (George Axelrod, 1955)

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One of the most iconic moments in cinema finds Marilyn Monroe cooling off by a subway grate as her white dress flies up, revealing some great gams and a pair of white sling-back heels.

9. The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Gannett, 1946)

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High heels and film noir femme fatales go hand in hand. And one of the best has to be Lana Turner’s Cora Smith, a young and frustrated peroxide blonde diner owner. We’re first introduced to her in a famous shot of her white open-toe heels, as the camera moves upwards to capture her profile. Hot dang, girl!

10. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952)

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Who can blame Gene Kelly for looking like a rabbit in the headlights, when his hat is hanging off Cyd Charisse’s famous green heels?

11. The Red Shoes (Kim Yong-gyun, 2005) 

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In a loose interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale The Red Shoes, Sun-jae (Kim Hye-soo) ditches her cheating hubby Sung-joon (Lee Eol) and takes a pair of pink high heels she found in the subway car. They turn out to be cursed, and what ensues is a tale of growing obsession, and murderous high heels, where the person who puts them on will die with their feet chopped off. Gruesome, vivid cinematography.

12. Female Trouble (John Waters, 1974)

It’s '60s Baltimore, and big, beehived and violent teenage ne’er-do-well Dawn Davenport (Divine) fails to get black cha-cha heels she wanted for Christmas. After chucking her mother into a Christmas tree, she runs away from home and winds up pregnant and on a sex and violence spree that also involves becoming a go-go dancer, sex worker, and petty criminal. Should have given her those cha-cha heels, really.

13. Butterfield 8 (Daniel Mann, 1960)

In which Elizabeth Taylor painfully jams a stiletto into the foot of a wealthy bastard.

14. Machete (Ethan Maniquis, Robert Rodriguez, 2010)

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This is no art gem, I’ll be honest with ya. If seeing Jessica Alba murder a Mexican wrestler with a red high heel sounds like fun, then Machete will be a good way to kill two hours. For other high-heels-as-murder-weapons, see Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female. Ouch.

15. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)

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Who’d have thought a 14-year-old prostitute in ‘70s New York would become a fashion icon for women everywhere? Jodie Foster’s Iris combines hot pants, slouchy hats and crop tops with an incredible pair of very ‘70s dark red platforms, perfect for running away from your violent pimp. OK, so fashion has got confused when it comes to this taut, tragic performance of a very real situation.

16. Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978) 

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Everyone knows that high heels are the ultimate weapon in an ugly girl make-over (along with taking off her glasses/ books/ worthwhile opinions). Good girl Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) slips into some seemingly sprayed-on PVC and red heels because she needs a man, and Travolta just ain’t interested. Woo feminism!

17. Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

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A Sex and The City for the 18th century: Manolo Blahnik designed the gorgeous shoes for Coppola’s candy-coloured shopping spree biopic of the cake-loving Queen of France.

18. Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997)

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Romy (Mira Sorvino) and Michele (Lisa Kudrow) are best friends and glamorous drop-outs. When a 10-year reunion forces them to sharpen up their lifestyles, they hit the gym in typical style – cue sparkly spandex, low cut tops and their trademark high heels, which also feature in matchy-matchy glory on the film’s poster.

19. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) 

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In another classic film make-over, close-ups of Charlotte (Bette Davis)’s dowdy Oxfords mark a contrast to this later close-up of her sexy and sleek cap toed heels.

20. Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998) 

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Nothing spells out the fashion cesspit that was the '70s like a pair of trashy platforms. In Velvet Goldmine, those glam rock soles are as sharp as Rhys-Meyer’s cheekbones. Thankfully relegated to the Sin Bin of Fashion, from which they will hopefully never see the light of day.

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