bal harbour blog

High Heel History

Ines de la Fressange, Brand Ambassador for Roger Vivier, looks chic in flat sandals at the Cannes Film Festival—despite the ban on flat shoes there this year.

By Jessica Michault

On June 11, Roger Vivier Bal Harbour and Fashion Project present a talk with curator and shoe historian Elizabeth Semmelhack at Books & Books. Semmelhack—who has been grabbing headlines lately for her poignant op-ed piece in The New York Times, following the ban on flats at the Cannes Film Festival—is the senior curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, will speak about the multilayered significance of high heeled shoes around the world and throughout history.

We sat down with Semmelhack to get her thoughts on a number of burning high heeled questions and why she found footwear so captivating in the first place.

Elizabeth Semmelheck, author and senior curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum.

What is your reaction to the ban of flat shoes at the Cannes Film Festival last month. What do you think that speaks to?
Especially when you look at Ines de la Fressange, the ambassador of the Roger Vivier shoe brand, who looked amazing wearing flats to a premiere at the festival.

It is very interesting to me that at a moment when flats are one of the most fashion-forward choices for women, heels would be “required” for the red carpet. As I wrote in my op-ed piece for The New York Times on the debacle, heels are so closely linked to ideals of desirability that for many beauty and flats seem to be at odds with each other. However, as you point out, Ines de la Fressange in her beautiful Vivier flats is a perfect example of elegance sans heels.

Why are only women wearing high heels today? For over a century men also favored the footwear.
That is one of the questions that interests me. Men wore heels for the first 130 years of their use in Western fashion but as ideals of masculinity shifted in the 18thcentury, heels came to be seen as irrational and feminine. In addition, Darwinian concepts of survival of the fittest in the 19thcentury began to include ideas that the most attractive men were natural tall. Heels for men could have been a remedy for short stature but since heels artificially increase height they end up highlighting lack of natural height.

Roger Vivier Belle Vivier Trompette, from the Fall/Winter 2015-16 collection.

What did Roger Vivier do to the footwear industry to revolutionize the market?
Roger Vivier was one of the most innovative shoe designers of the 20thcentury and created some of the most iconic and architecturally interesting shoes. Today the house of Roger Vivier continues this tradition with Bruno Frisoni at its helm. His beautiful shoes give a thoughtful nod to heritage yet are themselves delightfully cutting-edge. The Vivier ballerina, for example, is now a staple in the wardrobes of fashionable women worldwide.

What is it about high heels that projects this image of sex and power to the world?
This is a difficult question. I think the connection between high heels and eroticism has a very long history; their ubiquity in men’s pornography provides evidence of this. The connections between power and sexual allure is more fraught as the power of sexual allure lies in the eye of the beholder, not the beheld.

Roger Vivier’s Gommette T-Shirt Love Ballerina flat, from the Spring/Summer 2015 collection.

Why do you think there had been a flood of designer, and couture, sneaker footwear coming into the market in the past few seasons? What is that indicating to you on a cultural level?
Sneakers are definitely having a moment. Sneakers have been of increasing importance in men’s fashion and are allowing men to express their individuality through dress in unprecedented ways. I think this surge of importance in men’s fashion is what is making sneakers currently topical in women’s fashion as well. What will be interesting to see is if sneakers have staying power in women’s fashion. They certainly are a perfect way of being extremely fashionable without sacrificing comfort.

What are the high heel rules you live by?
I am very tall so wearing heels sometimes feels like a transgressive act but I do wear them when I feel like it. I do what I think all women should do—wear what I want to wear when I want to wear it.

From the archives of the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto. Photo by Ron Wood.

What is it about footwear, and high heels in particular, that fascinates you so much?
Ever since the heel was introduced into Western fashion at the turn of the 17thcentury, it has been ascribed cultural meaning yet over the centuries this has changed. What interests me is trying to unravel what the heel has signified and why its meanings have shifted. I am particularity fascinated by the transformation of the high heel into a complex icon of femininity.


On July 10th Semmelhack’s curatated exhibition The Rise of Sneaker Culture will open at the Brooklyn Museum. While her Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels exhibit is currently on view at the Bata Shoe Museum.

Visit Fashion Project for more information at


you may also like

Caftan Queen

Marie France Van Damme makes chic look effortless.

Fashion Feed

Gretchen Röehers's whimsical take on Fashion Week.

David Downton: Portraiture Perfection

The British illustrator inks out Fashions most glamorous faces.

Cooking the Books

Chef Missy Robbins dishes on her first cookbook: “Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner… Life!”
back to top