Torturous Heels Are Back—But Why?

Models falling, kicking off their heels, and visibly reaching out for help while on the verge of tears are everywhere right now, and it all has to do with the runway’s newest obsession: precarious heels. The biggest offender? Arguably Valentino, where multiple models fell hard on the spring 2023 runway, and then again during haute couture, when longtime supermodel Kristen McMenamy was visibly distraught as she took a tumble and then struggled to walk. She later threw the shoes across the catwalk as she marched on, her head held high.

These heels aren’t just exceptionally high, they’re flat-out dangerous; and suddenly, they’re as ubiquitous on the runways as sneakers are on the street. Sky-high heels have had their place in fashion for decades, but after season upon season of designers embracing ballet flats and kitten heels, many of the major houses have gone all out in favor of alarmingly perilous shoes. Versace’s spring 2021 collection introduced the Medusa Aevitas platform pumps that may have started it all. Fendi’s spring 2023 chunky platforms had models taking them off and carrying them on the runway, and Balmain’s models teetered in massive, rock-like shoes. At Vivienne Westwood, a model also fell while wearing sky-high platforms.

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Kristen McMenamy at Valentino runway.

But why now? Fashion is nothing if not cyclical, and the 2010s are coming back in full force with labels like Celine and Saint Laurent capitalizing on certain aesthetics of the time period, like indie sleaze. Plenty of death-defying heels also defined the aughts. Alexander McQueen’s alien-like shoes in his spring 2010 collection were otherworldly with their extreme height, dome-like shape, and teeny-tiny heel, while Prada spring 2009 was known for its slippery, dangerously high heels with a teeteringly tall shape that caused many models to stumble. Off the runway, the influence of Jeffrey Campbell’s Litas and Isabel Marant’s wedge sneakers were legendary during the same era. Of course, the early 2000s still serves as a pivotal reference point in fashion right now, and the look of Bratz Dolls platforms and vintage Vivienne Westwood heels is clearly influential.


Likewise, fashion historians also think the new wave of tortuous heels has everything to do with the post-pandemic need to get dressed up, which we’ve seen throughout history following tumultuous times that resulted in casual dressing. “After two years in pajamas, the idea is that you need to dress like you are going to the Oscars,” says the historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox. “This is not a surprising move from the fashion industry, as they need to make profits, but we’ve seen it in the past as well. Every time there is a period of moving towards comfort and functionality, there is also a counter reaction that brings back the impractical. Both the 1920s and post-WWII had periods like that.”

model naomi campbell and fashion designer vivienne westwood attend the designer of the year awards at the natural history museum during london fashion week, 19th october 1993 photo by dave benettgetty images

Model Naomi Campbell, wearing the Super Elevated Gillie heels, and Vivienne Westwood.

Dave Benett//Getty Images

Perhaps the idea of shoes meant for showing off rather than walking also plays into our collective increased screen time and obsession with virality online. Right now, fashion shows are all about buzzy moments, with brands trying to upstage each other and fighting for the most views on social media, like what we witnessed with Coperni’s spray-on dress. Naomi Campbell cheerfully falling with a laugh at a Vivienne Westwood show in 1993 while wearing the label’s Super Elevated Gillie towering heels has become its own meme-worthy moment. The clip lives on, but really, it’s no wonder she lost her balance, as the shoes themselves were 12 inches high with a four-inch front platform. She later revealed that other designers asked if she could fall on their runways, too.

Are 2023’s supertall heels just another attempt to grab attention? When the shoes—and the models falling—eclipse the clothing, it’s an easy way to become memorable. But let’s be honest: it’s degrading and dehumanizing to have women falling down, possibly getting injured, one after the other. Unfortunately, that’s also what gets a lot of views online. People love to be entertained at the sake of others.

It’s also worth noting that heels and other painful footwear weren’t always defined by gender, except for the fact that the most tortuous aspects have mainly been applied to women and young girls. Think: foot binding in Eastern cultures as well as heels in Western cultures throughout the Renaissance period. “Heels were worn by both sexes, but the more extreme sky-high heels were usually worn by women,” says Rabinovitch-Fox, who cites 16th-century chopines worn by Venice courtesans, which were as high as 20 inches. “In the East, platform shoes called Geta were worn by geishas in Japan. They were similar to the traditional getas (an earlier version of the flip-flop), but geishas wore it with a platform. There is a connection that both geishas and courtesans wore similar shoes, as these shoes were not meant for walking, but to draw attention.” Also something to think about: most of these extreme heels are coming out of fashion houses with male creative directors (even Westwood has been co-led by her partner Andreas Kronthaler since the ’90s), though fashion inherently has less female-led fashion houses anyway.

Sure, the right pair of extremely high heels can make you feel incredibly confident and transform any look. But it’s important to draw a distinction between shoes that look high and are wearable versus those that professional models with decades of experience can’t walk in, even for less than a few minutes. “High heels in general have been associated both with oppression and with feminist empowerment throughout history,” adds Rabinovitch-Fox, who notes that they similarly align with today’s other popular trends that fall into both categories of interpretation: the naked dress, micro minis, underwear as outerwear.

So, are towering heels a symbol of empowerment or a beacon of dressing for the male gaze? One could spend a lifetime arguing both sides. But unfortunately, in many ways, fashion is moving at a breakneck speed going backward. The lack of body diversity embraced by brands on the spring 2023—and now fall/winter 2023—runways speaks volumes. Heels that are barely wearable? It puts the women wearing them in the position of inanimate dolls—doomed to fail and set up to be torn apart online if she can’t perform, as seen with some of the comments on McMenamy’s experience at the Valentino show.

In 2023, unwalkable footwear feels inherently stilted and in stark opposition to what’s being worn in real life. Let’s take it down to ground level, shall we?

Headshot of Kristen Bateman

Contributing Editor

Kristen Bateman is a contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar. Her first fashion article was published in Vogue Italia during her junior year of high school. Since then, she has interned and contributed to WWD, Glamour, Lucky, i-D, Marie Claire and more. She created and writes the #ChicEats column and covers fashion and culture for Bazaar. When not writing, she follows the latest runway collections, dyes her hair to match her mood, and practices her Italian in hopes of scoring 90% off Prada at the Tuscan outlets. She loves vintage shopping, dessert and cats.

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