The Politics of High Heels at the Bata Shoe Museum

“Suffrage! Right to hold office! Show us first the woman who has independence and sense and taste enough to dress attractively…in shoes that do not destroy both her comfort and her gait.”

So wrote the New York Times in 1871, on the topic of women’s suffrage.  I had not realized that a woman’s wardrobe choices, including a fondness for high heels, had been at issue during the long fight for the right to vote in the United States. But shoes have been quite political over the course of human history. The quote above was on the wall in a special exhibit about shoes in the 1920s — the last stop on my tour of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

This was not the first time that politics had come up at the museum, nor was it the first time that Elizabeth Semmelhack, the museum curator, and I discussed the total impracticality of high heels. (For the record, we were both wearing flats.) “High heels are entirely irrational footwear,” she said. “The higher a heel becomes,  the less it conforms with mobility.” On the other hand (other foot?), high heels and a woman’s sexuality have been intimately intertwined for centuries — they are routinely described, for instance, as “hot”.

Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto

So a conundrum for a woman in the late 19th century: should she sacrifice an important signifier of her one reliable source of power over men, that of sexual attraction, in favor of sensible shoes? Or should she keep her heels, retain that power, and provide evidence of  a “woman’s foolishness”?

Telling are the two stereotypes that women were sorted into, on the basis of the height of their heels, writes Semmelhack in Heights of Fashion, in her fascinating history of the elevated shoe: “The humourless, low-heeled frump and the empty headed, high-heeled flirt.”


My private tour with curator Elizabeth Semmelhack was another stop on my Toronto itinerary, and therefore part of the all-expenses paid trip which you can enter to win. See previous stories on this trip, including this one on a frequently overlooked museum in Toronto, and this one on my a romance with a hat. More details here.


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