October 25, 2013 | 37 Comments

The Stiletto Heel

From the curators: The stiletto heel—named after the slender Italian dagger of the Renaissance—first appeared in the 1930s. The inventor of this long, often steel-spiked, thin heel remains in dispute, but today many attribute its rise in fame to Roger Vivier’s work for Christian Dior in the early 1950s. The stiletto has woven its way in and out of fashion history, but remains a highly charged symbol of sexuality, aggressiveness, and fetishism.

The stiletto high heel is modern woman’s most lethal social weapon. First imagined in the 1930s but not realized until postwar technology made it possible in the early 1950s, the stiletto is a visual slash born to puncture and pierce.

While platform shoes increased stature for both men and women, from Greco-Roman actors to Venetian sophisticates on flooded walkways, the slanted structure of current high heels descends from the boots of early medieval horsemen seeking traction in the stirrup. Hence high heels have a masculine lineage, latent in their use by emancipated women eager to rise to men’s level.

But this quest for equality, dominance, or merely assertive presence at work and play is contradicted by a crippling construction: no item of female dress since the tight-laced Victorian corset is so mutilating. Pain and deformation are the price of high-heeled beauty. The high heel creates the illusion of a lengthened leg by shortening the calf muscle, arching the foot, and crushing the toes, forcing breasts and buttocks out in a classic hominid posture of sexual invitation.

The eroticization of high heels (still at medium height) was sped along in the 1920s by the rising hemlines of flappers showing off their legs in scandalously hyperkinetic dances like the Charleston. Alfred Hitchcock’s fetishistic focus on high heels can be seen throughout his murder mysteries, from his early silent films in London to his Technicolor Hollywood classics like Vertigo and The Birds, where Tippi Hedren (a former fashion model) demonstrates the exquisite artifice of high-heel wearing as well as its masochistic vulnerability, chronicled in a thousand low-budget horror movies. A woman in high heels, unable to run, is a titillating target for attack.

But the high heel as an instrument of sex war can be witnessed in action in a stunning face-off in Butterfield 8 (1960), where Elizabeth Taylor as a glossy call-girl, her wrist painfully gripped by Laurence Harvey at a chic Manhattan bar, implacably grinds her phallic spike heel into his finely leathered foot. This was at a time when stiletto heels, which concentrate enormous pressure in a tiny space, were banned from buildings with susceptible linoleum or hardwood floors.

It was already being rumored in those pre-Stonewall days that drag queens, harassed on the street, would whip off their high heels and ferociously wield them against assailants. In 2006, noted New York drag queen Flotilla DeBarge was jailed after a bar-room fracas where she swung her black high-heels (impounded by the police as evidence) to inflict wounds requiring stitches upon an insulting straight man and his date (an online headline: “Meatpacking District Drag Queen High-Heel Beatdown”).

Reports of high-heeled crime were on the increase in 2013. In Washington, D.C., a man complained to the police that a petite woman had hit him in the head with her shoe outside the Ibiza nightclub. After a fight at a Washington 7-Eleven, three women were arrested for stabbing their opponents; one wielded a knife, but the other two used their shoes, leading to the charge, “Assault with a dangerous weapon.” In Houston, Texas, a 44-year-old woman was charged with murder after a bloody clash in a condominium tower during which her professor boyfriend died after being struck in the head, face, and neck by 30 blows from her stiletto heels.

The dagger later called a stiletto began as a needle-like medieval tool to finish off a fallen knight by a thrust through chain mail or between plate armor. During the Renaissance, the stiletto became the favorite weapon of Italian assassins, jabbing from behind through heavy fabric or leather and killing invisibly while barely leaving a drop of blood. The stiletto’s historic association with deception and treachery thus gives an aura of sadistic glamor to the modern high heel, whose stem contains a concealed shaft of steel. Woman as seducer or seduced can also lance and castrate.

Helmut Newton, whose superb fashion photography was suffused with the perverse world view of his native Weimar Berlin, captured the disturbing complexities of the high heel in Shoe, a picture taken in Monte Carlo in 1983. Here we see the fashionable shoe in all its florid delicacy and dynamic aggression. The stance, with shifted ankle, seems mannish. Is this a dominatrix poised to trample her delirious victim? Or is it a streetwalker defiantly defending her turf? Or a drag queen scornfully pissing in an alley? The shoe, shot from the ground, seems colossal, a pitiless totem of pagan sex cult.

The luxury high heel as status marker is directed not toward men but toward other women—both intimate confidantes and bitter rivals. The high heel in its dazzlingly heraldic permutations (as dramatized in Sex and the City) is beyond the comprehension of most men: only women and gay men can tell the difference between a Manolo Blahnik and a Jimmy Choo. In full disclosure, I never wear these shoes and indeed deplore their horrifying cost at a time of urgent social needs. Nevertheless, I acknowledge and admire the high heel as a contemporary icon and perhaps our canonical objet d’art.

At the Neiman Marcus department store at the King of Prussia Mall in suburban Philadelphia, a visitor ascending the escalator to the second floor is greeted by a vast horizon of welcoming tables, laden with designer shoes of ravishing allure but staggering price tags (now hovering between $500 and $900 a pair but soaring to $6000 for candy-colored, crystal-studded Daffodile pumps by Christian Louboutin). Despite my detestation of its decadence, this theatrical shoe array has for years provided me with far more intense aesthetic surprise and pleasure than any gallery of contemporary art, with its derivative gestures, rote ironies, and exhausted ideology.

Designer shoes represent the slow but steady triumph of the crafts over the fine arts during the past century. They are streamlined works of modern sculpture, wasteful and frivolous yet elegantly expressive of pure form, a geometric reshaping of soft and yielding nature. An upscale shoe department is a gun show for urban fashionistas, a site of ritual display where danger lurks beneath the mask of beauty.

Is the stiletto heel “modern woman’s most lethal social weapon”?

  1. November 3, 2013, 2:17 am


    I am not sure, whether interpreting stiletto heel as the modern woman’s most lethal weapon is possible without falling into the territory of gender-based stereotypes of representation. Women’s determination to appear strong and confident at the workplace dominated mostly by testosterone can manifest through many things. Stiletto heel as one, has the potential to host a wide set of connotations starting with its name inherited from the ‘stiletto the weapon’. What the heel and the dagger share in common might be the confidence that the object lends to its bearer/wearer. We can also argue that the need to carry a weapon or to associate with it (in the case of the heel) renders the bearer/wearer also vulnerable.

    Stiletto heel’s relation to the concept of violence, high-heeled crime being the most literal, feels quite forced if we take violence as what it is. The verb ‘violation’, however, offers a chance to speculate on this relationship. One aspect of the stiletto heel relates most to the idea of violation: sound. Even though stiletto’s iconic form inevitably creates visual ties with certain stereotypes, sound as the by-product of walking in a stiletto, escapes, in fact, trespasses the symbolic boundaries defined by the object’s visual qualities. Sound of a stiletto heel hitting the ground violates silence around the wearer in many ways, and surely signifies the presence of a woman without the appearance. In a silent library, a hospital corridor, or a conference room, stiletto wearer manifests her presence: an imposing, abstract weapon that approaches to others without permission. Sound, however, also makes this weapon’s bearer also quite vulnerable. As much as we can detect self-confidence, seduction or flirtation, and determination through rhythm, frequency and volume, we can also detect impatience, hurry, fear and anger. Sound opens up to the others by violating the visual composure of the wearer, invites them to speculate on, even to judge, the wearer.

    The sound of the heel has the capability both to project the wearer as intended, and also to give her vulnerabilities away, no matter what a pair of Manolo is supposed to tell about the modern woman.

  2. November 9, 2013, 4:01 am

    Hugh Brennan

    Always worth reading, Paglia alludes to the violence of the spike like shoe heel, but stops short with a brief reference to Newton of fully entering into the fetishist’s fascination with the ever higher and sharper heel.
    Paglia may be off a bit with the stirrup reference. i don’t know if the actual footwear of the era bears that out.
    For the modern woman though, and beyond the cargo cult aspect of women and shoe worship, there’s the blunt facts of height and power. For the most part, men over six foot enjoy distinct advantages in business, politics and romance. Women, in their recent attempts to invade the strongholds of status and power, may just need the competitive boost of increased altitude.
    30 stab wounds from a stiletto heel! He should have been a better listener. On a personal note, my dear mom was 5’11’ and still war the stilettos of the 50’s. It was a great happiness to hear her clicking down the pavement at night as she returned from work- also made her easy to find in Macys and Gimbels.
    Another thing not addressed is the disfiguring effect of regular wearing of these shoes. This is redolent of the foot binding of the Chinese or physically dangerous corsets of our recent past.

  3. November 9, 2013, 7:40 am

    Ryan Kasten

    In response to Hugh Brennan’s comment: “Another thing not addressed is the disfiguring effect of regular wearing of these shoes. This is redolent of the foot binding of the Chinese or physically dangerous corsets of our recent past.”
    Did you actually read Paglia’s text? Or did a deficit of attention lead you to comment on something you only briefly skimmed? She says: “[N]o item of female dress since the tight-laced Victorian corset is so mutilating. Pain and deformation are the price of high-heeled beauty.”

  4. November 9, 2013, 2:25 pm

    Patricio Luzo

    MoMa Milan

    When did the MoMa move to Milan?
    Or perhaps it has been engulfed by Gucci, Prada and 5th ave high fashion!

    Can’t wait for the next show: derelicte!
    (Not exactly “machine art,” is it)
    When did the hetero sexist talk (wearing a feminist facade) become a current fad? Maybe to appeal to the MoMas new demo of 40 year old women. Sorry to everyone else, but hedge fund wives must be titilated by violence and smell while their husbands put out thousands of migrants in Africa.

    How embarrassing this will all look in 5-10 years.
    Then again, it’s in the internet, so it’s life will be more like one day.

  5. November 11, 2013, 10:32 pm

    Lisa Roberts

    Using Design to protect Against Violence

    Stilettos may inadvertently be a protector for women, but a recent article in Fast Company features underwear that is intentionally designed to thwart would-be rapists.

  6. November 13, 2013, 1:26 am


    Farrah Anecdote

    Check out Farrah Fawcett’s story about using her high heels as a defensive weapon at PBS’s excellent Blank on Blank series of animated interviews.

  7. November 13, 2013, 3:28 pm

    […] Camille Paglia follows in the tradition of Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes by producing brilliantly written pieces of high criticism of ordinary elements of contemporary popular culture. […]

  8. November 25, 2013, 4:13 pm

    […] predictable, the objects themselves are less so. Social critic Camille Paglia has written about the stiletto heel, which she describes as “woman’s most lethal social weapon”, and which is at least suggestive […]

  9. December 8, 2013, 10:18 pm

    Juan Pablo Pemberty

    A Sense of Power

    Stilettos: Despite their ban in public spaces during the decade of the 50’s because they caused physical damage to the floors, their suggested phallic connotation, their fetishist appeal and the censure from doctors that claimed that they caused numerous health problems, women have continued to demand them.

    For me, the stiletto heel functions within a social realm. Their use is not wholly explained by their function. They do not work as a form of self-protection as Paglia suggests. Neither they are strictly communicative, nor do they conform to the kind of feminist discourses that say that the stiletto heel is an object of women’s subordination. Rather their form lets women transform their body image and get an intense sense of corporeality, as the body elongates and reaches upwards. Lee Wright, in Objectifying Gender writes: “The stiletto heel points out that clothes were meant to be an extension of the female figure to emphasize it rather than distract from it.”

    The stiletto heel changes the gait of women, the measure at which they normally walk and, more fundamentally, their posture. Far from being an actual weapon, they are a prosthesis, an extension of the body, a symbol of status that gives woman a sense power and control .

  10. December 8, 2013, 10:34 pm

    Audrey Sutton

    Not Much of a Weapon

    Rather than looking at the stiletto as an object of violence, why not think of it as an object of defense? By looking at the stiletto as a weapon of treachery and deception, one villainizes the wearer. Stilettos are not used offensively, they are used defensively.

    In my experience, very few women truly enjoy wearing heels. While they might enjoy the short-term effects in appearance, eventually the shoes become uncomfortable. So why wear them? Heels might make a woman feel powerful, but where does that sense of power come from? The power comes from the fact that when a woman wears heels in the workplace she is considered to be in control and capable. Wearing heels are a defense against being thought of as unqualified. Wearing heels shows that a woman is willing to put herself through physical discomfort in order to prove that she is competent in the workplace.

    Often in the situations mentioned where stilettos were used as weapons, they were used defensively. In the provided clip from Butterfield 8, Elizabeth Taylor’s character uses her stilettos to try to injure Laurence Harvey’s character because he is attacking her. Even then, the heel is not very effective. He acts as if her heel did not affect him in the slightest and only lets go of her when he wants to do so. So no, the stiletto heel is not the “modern woman’s most lethal social weapon.” It is barely a weapon. And when it used as a weapon, it is because the person wearing the stilettos is being forced to use them in their own defense.

  11. December 9, 2013, 1:58 am

    Yoko Wang

    Terrifying Uncertainties

    In response to Burcu’s post, I think her recognition of sound as a part of the design of stiletto heel is brilliant. Sound is a feminine signal. The clear and striking noise cannot be ignored since it is making a ringing statement about its existence. It is interesting because the sound has various rhythms and beats, which depends on the wearer. It is showing its owners’ characteristics and present state by making different type of noises. Therefore, sometimes we can recognize the female just by judging the sound of her heels without actually seeing her. The sound and the person have somehow merge into a new being, which owns its unique power and strength.

    However, not everyone likes the click of the heels; the beats of the shoes sometimes affect the speed of heartbeat, especially when the sound is approaching. The real terror of a weapon is not its physical power but the uncertainty it creates. When sound is perceived before we see where it comes from or from whom it comes, we do not know what is going to happen next; all we can do is to wait until the sound passes and fades away. Maybe that is the real weapon of women: mysterious uncertainty.

  12. December 9, 2013, 4:04 am

    Miriam Feldman

    Stiletto as a Post-Modern Feminist Weapon

    Today, the stiletto embodies a post-modern feminism. Women are no longer simply blank

    canvases being told how to look, what they should wear, and when they should wear

    it. Though the male gaze still exists, it is not necessarily this that they are performing

    for. In fact, women now have the option to don the stiletto with total agency – they can

    look good for themselves, for men, or for other women. The stiletto is now an emblem

    for choice. However, this choice is a particular crippling, painful, and maligning one.

    There is pain in the act of performing this particular type of femininity, yet from this

    pain comes a sense of owning one’s sexuality and power. The wearers of the shoe are

    fulfilling themselves through pain—enduring it is a test of stamina, a test of how long one

    can balance the entire weight of their bodies onto the balls of their feet. The casualties of

    stilettos are real – broken ankles, mangled toes, bruises, blisters, and cuts. However, it is

    through these painful mitigations in stilettos that women achieve a look, an attitude, or a

    feeling. There is fulfillment through torture.

  13. December 15, 2013, 4:30 pm

    […] Westwood and Karl Lagerfeld, to create the sculptures which range from wearably gorgeous to abstractly violent. They were created using a 3D […]

  14. April 2, 2014, 1:02 pm

    Katherine Moyer

    Literal or Figurative Weapon?

    The stiletto heel’s association with a weapon should be separated into two notions: on and off of the foot. When off the foot, this pointy-heeled shoe is simply another dagger-like object useful for self-defense and the infliction of pain on an attacking enemy, as in the Washington D.C crime discussed above. This use of the stiletto comes as no surprise considering it derives its name from the small Italian dagger its heel brings to mind. Sharp and dangerous, yet elegant and powerful, the stiletto shoe, when placed upon a female foot becomes a psychological weapon within the society in which it walks.
    This brings me to the second notion, its use as a weapon once on the foot. This shoe immediately enhances its wearer, making her not only physically taller, but also socially more powerful. The most immediate shift is upward, as the heel is raised several inches off of the floor. Through height, one is given power and presence, making the stiletto a weapon of personal ambition and pursuit. The authority imbedded in the shoe is translated directly to its occupier, creating supremacy over others when in social situations. The feeling of mastery and accomplishment that comes from wearing the shoe trumps the pain and aggravation caused by its wearing. The shoe is also rooted with historical agency- the notion that powerful women over the years have worn these shoes. This intensifies the appeal and creates a consistent demand for this elegant yet powerful shoe style. The stereotype of the heel wearer is one which endures a life of desire, poise, and injury. The stiletto is inherently paradoxical in its form and function. Camille’s statement cautions this. “It is a site of ritual display where danger lurks beneath the mask of beauty.” In the literal sense, it is a pointy object; in the figurative sense, it is a symbol of ambition and power. The stiletto shoe is a double entendre form of a weapon.

  15. May 14, 2014, 11:37 am

    […] The Stiletto Heel: Essay by Camille Paglia. “The stiletto high heel is modern woman’s most lethal social weapon”. […]

  16. March 23, 2015, 3:25 pm

    […] have some nasty side effects, too.  They fucking hurt to wear – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Many women […]

  17. April 16, 2015, 8:41 pm

    […] a piece by Camile Paglia, she compares the mutilating effects of high heels to that of the Victorian corset. As she […]

  18. August 13, 2015, 2:46 am

    […] and those increasingly ubiquitous plastic handcuffs. Camille Paglia considered the dagger-like stiletto heel as “modern woman’s most lethal social weapon,” while Rob Walker wrote that the […]

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