Object lesson No 32

29th September 2000 at 01:00
Foot-binding, fire-walking, ballet dancing - for centuries humans have had it in for their feet. And shoes have not helped. The trendsetters of 14th-century Europe took a shine to "cracows" - footwear that came to a point 30 inches from the foot. Knights riding into the Battle of Sempach in Switzerland had to cut off their cracows' toes so they could fight without tripping up.

Height rather than length of shoe became critical in the 16th century. Leonardo da Vinci, that first Renaissance Man, is generally, if rather vaguely, credited with inventing the high heel. (Thanks, Leo.) In 1533, soon after his death, Catherine d'Medici wore two-inch heels for her wedding to the future Henri II of France.

England's Queen Mary, who was short as well as bloody, was also a fan of heels. And in 17th-century France, Louis XIV wore five-inch platforms, but because he was a real man he had them decorated with miniature battle scenes.

Roger Vivier would have felt at home in Louis's court. A Parisian shoe designer who died in 1998, Vivier spent his life in high society. He made Elizabeth II's garnet-encrusted coronation shoes and sold the first designer-label, ready-to-wear footwear. His place in history's shoe box, however, is assued by that most nasty and naughty heel - the stiletto. Invented by Vivier in the 1950s, its name comes from the Italian for a little dagger with a chunky blade.

One of Vivier's first jobs was with the surrealist-inspired designer Elsa Schiaparelli. (She employed Salvador Dali to work on ties.) Vivier experimented with unconventional heels, coming up with the "comma" - a curved design developed with the help of aeronautical engineers - while his stilettos rose to a toe-crunching height of six inches.

The stiletto suited the 1950s. The war was over and consumerism, certainly in the United States, was in. Life for the well-off was a round of barbecues, cocktail parties, I Love Lucy on TV and Marilyn Monroe at the cinema. It was a time to dress up, and no heel made the point better.

Following in Vivier's footsteps is Spaniard Manolo Blahnik. His stilettoes are worn by the likes of Jerry Hall and Madonna and adored by the cast of Absolutely Fabulous. In March, Blahnik explained what his customers liked about his shoes: "They want sex. They want danger. That's the disease. I'm so incredibly bored with sex, I don't want to hear about it ever again."

I guess that's cobblers for you.

Stephanie Northen

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