Bata Shoe Museum’s Elizabeth Semmelhack Talks High Heels and Sneakerheads

DENVER AND TORONTO VIA E-MAIL—Shoes. As women, we love them, we hate them, we covet them, we even imbue them with magical powers (Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw and Cinderella come to mind). We expect our shoes to speak for us, to tell the world something about who we are—our social status, our perceptions of gender, our nationality and even our religious beliefs. And as a fashion accessory, shoes do a fairly nice job of telling a complicated story. But how well do we really understand them? And what do our shoes say about us?

To find out, she-files recently spoke with Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto over e-mail. Ms. Semmelhack, a Buffalo, New York native, has dedicated well over a decade to researching shoes and educating the public about why a shoe is not just a shoe. Her interest in what she says are “the intersections of gender, fashion, economics and culture” began while she was studying Japanese art history and translated easily into her research on footwear.

Since joining the Bata Shoe Museum in 2000, Ms. Semmelhack has written books about high heels and sneaker culture, and even curated an exhibition about men and high heels, “Standing Tall,” in 2015 which examined the historical role of high heels in male culture–from practical riding shoes in Persia (from which Europeans adopted high heels at the turn of the 17th century) to the more contemporary gender-bending heels worn by musicians like Prince, Elton John, and even John Lennon. Her most recent book, “Shoes: The Meaning of Style,” a book about what shoes say about culture and the individuals wearing them, is due out in the Americas and the UK in December of this year. EXCERPTS:


Photo: Elizabeth Semmelhack

KIRSCH FELDKAMP: What can you tell us about the relationship between women, high heels and culture as it stands today? How has the relationship between gender and high heels changed over time?

SEMMELHACK: The relationship between women and high heels is obviously a complicated one. Heels started out as men’s footwear in Western Asia and only become of interest to Europeans at the turn of the 17th century. Throughout the 17th century, both men and women wore heels but as the century progressed heel design became increasingly gendered.  Men’s heels were high but they were broad and sturdy while women’s became higher and more attenuated. By the 18th century, heels were becoming suspect for men as Enlightenment concepts of male “rationality” posited that masculinity and “irrational” things such as high heels were better left to women. The connections made between femininity, irrationality and fashion established in the 18th century remain with us to this day and continue to inform the cultural meanings of the high heel. Over the course of the 20th century, heels went in and out of women’s fashion but they remained central to men’s erotica and even today they continue to ornament the naked female body in pornography. In part, this is what complicates them in the workplace. The promotion in the early 21st century of high heels as women’s “power tools” played on the idea that professional advancement could be assisted by women manipulating their attractiveness.


Photo: Persian riding shoe, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum.

What is your favorite anecdote on high heels?

My research has hopefully illuminated the fact that high heels have meant different things at different times. This is important to me because it helps refute the, in my opinion, misguided idea that women are somehow genetically predisposed to wanting to wear high heels. For example, I was able to trace the origin of the heel as far back at the 10th century in Western Asia were heels were worn by men for horseback riding as a means to keep the foot in the stirrup.



Photo: 1920s women’s sports shoe, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum.

You’ve written a book entitled “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.” What can you tell us about women and sneaker culture?

When the sneaker first debuted in the middle of the 19th century it was primarily used for tennis, one of the few sports that allowed men and women to play together. It was a sport of the wealthy and early sneakers were expensive and so both men and women of privilege wore sneakers in the context of upper-class leisure. By the end of the 19th century, exercise had been integrated into education and more women were being encouraged to exercise. The feminine ideal [at the time] was the Gibson Girl and athleticism and femininity seemed poised to be complementary. However, the burgeoning women’s rights moment and call for women’s suffrage called all of that into question. Women played some sports but increasingly exercise

Photo: Pierre Hardy Powarama, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum.

was promoted as a means to slim down, to be more attractive–competitiveness and athletic prowess were not the focus. In the 1980s, when sneaker culture began in earnest, while men were running around in Air Jordans or Adidas Superstars, women were doing aerobics in the Reebok Freestyle marketed just to women. As sneaker culture grew even larger in the 1990s, the most desirable sneakers continued to only be made in men’s sizes, effectively keeping women out. Even today, many female sneakerheads remain frustrated by the lack of “men’s sneakers” available in their sizes. On the bright side, there is evidence of some change. When Rhianna’s Puma x Fenty Creepers came out they were only available in women’s sizes but so many men wanted them that they were then released in men’s sizes too.  This shift towards men wanting something designed for women is almost unprecedented in fashion history.


Do you have a favorite pair of shoes at the museum and what about your favorite pair of shoes from your own closet?

It is true, the museum collection is amazing.  I do have a number of shoes in the collection that stand out as favorites but really all the shoes are amazing because of the stories embedded in them.  Really, it would be too hard to choose a favorite.  As for my own collection of shoes, I love my Roger Vivier sneakers. I probably wear them too often.


Photo: Christian Louboutin sneakers, courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum.

Do you see shoes changing significantly for women in the future and if so, how?

That depends on how gender is constructed in the future. Shoes, like other elements of dress, are central to communicating social concepts such as gender. Currently, the high heel is an icon of femininity but as my research has shown, things can definitely change. One of the things that I am particularly interested in is the trend toward customization and where that will lead in regards to footwear. Will customized fashion and footwear allow us to better express our own individuality? Historically, fashion has been used to establish group identity and to communicate to others nuanced details about these group identities. If we go to hyper-customization and individuality, will that language be lost? These are the questions plaguing me at the moment.

By Kristin Kirsch Feldkamp

Feature Image: Roger Vivier stilettos, courtesy of the Bata Shoe Museum.


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