Why don’t we have killer French heels, the likes of which were *the* heel style for hundreds of years, on shoes these days? Where did they go? Are they just out of fashion, or is there another reason?
I have a theory.
Since I’ve been designing shoes for the American Duchess historical footwear line, I’ve run into all kinds of interesting problems with the manufacturers who make the various parts of our shoes. One of the more difficult aspects has been the heels.
I insist upon period accurate heels, but the problem is that nobody makes them, so all the heels we use on our shoes are custom made. It’s expensive and time consuming, but also so frustrating – why don’t any factories just already make them?
At first I thought it was because they were just out of style, but when looking back into ladies’ shoe history, a true French, or Louis, heel hasn’t been around for decades. Feeble attempts were made at them in the 1980s and 90s, but the examples from that period aren’t quite right. They lack the sumptuous curves and sturdy yet feminine balance of a Victorian or Georgian heel.
|StudioNostalgia, Etsy – 90s “Victorian” style boots -it’s *trying* to be a classic French heel…|
According to Nancy Rexford, in her book Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930, “the curved [French] heel went out of fashion about 1923, and from 1924 nearly all heels had relatively straight sides…” (pg 84) . We gained straighter Cuban and Spanish heels, still lovely and balanced, but nothing like the curvaceous Frenchies. During the 1920s, the French heel and Cuban and Spanish heels existed together, but by the 1930s, the French heel disappears. Later we get wedges and platform heels, then stiletto and spike heels, and all kinds of weird stuff in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s…but still no return to French heels.
|The Met, 1925-30, French Heels to be sure|
|1927, The Met – definitely a Spanish heel.|
Why? Well…my theory is that it comes down to three things: machines, plastics, and money.
French heels by their very design are a hand-turned item. Even in the mid-19th century, with the shoe industry becoming more and more mechanized, heels were still carved out of wood and covered with material by hand. Though the injection molding machine had been around since 1872, it took the advent of World War II to rapidly grow the use of this technology, to answer the demand for affordable, mass-produced products. This included shoe heels (an obvious example being the craze for lucite heels – let’s not hide our love of plastics or anything), and for at least two decades, wood and man-made heels coexisted, one as common as the other. By the early 1950s, Roger Vivier’s invention of the steel-shanked stiletto heel obliterated the use of wood in fashionable sky-high spiked heels, and took the high heel industry forward into a world of injection molded, mass-produced, steel-and-plastic footwear.
Today the process is the same – almost all modern shoe heels are machine mass produced, be it with cast plastic, or composite “wood” material (which is not to say that solid wood heels aren’t around, but rarely hand-carved, as in the past). For plastics and composites, molds are made of steel or silicone, and it takes about 7 molds to provide the same heel to one style of women’s shoes in 13 sizes (like American Duchess shoes). This means that in order to keep the shoes affordable, a complete heel needs to pop out of the mold, rather than pieces of a heel that then need to be adhered together, costing more molds, time, labor, and specialized skill.
So gone are the sweeping curves of the classic French heel, with its waist, its flare, its inward swoop under the arch, all because it is too expensive to cast them in plastic. This is not just a “made in China” thing – it’s the product of modern technology, materials, and consumer culture.
|An iteration of Pompadour’s heel, during development. The prototype heels are still carved in wood, by a skilled craftsman, but will later be molded and cast in plastic, before being covered in leather.|
How do I know this? I had the “joy” of encountering these issues with Pompadour’s super-swoopy French heels, which ended up to be a headache and a half when it came to manufacturing them. Now you know – Pompadour’s heels are not just cool, they’re the only modern heel on the face of this planet that are shaped like that, through much blood, sweat, and tears.
|Some day we shall meet again… (Met, 1906)|
Next time you’re at the shoe store, I challenge you to find a shoe with a proper French heel! It’s a sad loss, but we can only hope that technology and fashion in the future will again bring us back to the most enduring heel style of all time. It surely deserves to be the French heel and not the Stiletto!
Source Books to Entice You –
Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930 by Nancy Rexford
Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers by Georgio Niello
A good article on the history of the stiletto heel: http://www.somethingdark.eu/extend-1/page-69/extra.html