The Higher the Heel, the Greater the Bubble: Shoes as Economic Theory

Ironing Board Collective occasionally features the voice of a special guest writing a single post. This one’s courtesy of Samuael Topiary.

Samuael Topiary is an interdisciplinary media artist, performer, filmmaker and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her videos, performances, collaborations and installations have been presented in film festivals, theaters, galleries and museums in venues through the US and internationally. 

As a short female person with a certain amount of gender dysphoria, platform shoes have always been my go-to shoe for fun and recreation — a much more appealing way to prop myself up than the dreaded uber-feminine “high heels” that the “ladies” wore when I was growing up. Perhaps because of my personal height challenge, I was particularly attuned to the recent(-ish) trend of paper-thin shoes. It began around 2006 or so and the ubiquity of all those ballet slippers and crepe-soled shoes got me thinking: what does shoe height have to do with economic and social trends?

Here’s my theory: in times of economic bubbles and flights from reality, fashion expresses our relationship to the ground through the shoes we wear. In other words, in times of wild, unbridled economic euphoria and Internet bubble economies, we strive for an ever more displaced relationship to gravity. And conversely, in times of economic instability, when we begin to sense that the ground beneath our feet is shifting and unsteady, we shod ourselves in wafer-thin shoes as a kind of yearning for hard, gravel stability.



In my copious research on the recent history of shoe height, I learned that the ubiquitous ballet flats (still ubiquitous today) made their initial comeback around 2006, as a design that was convenient for all day-wear and easily paired with skinny jeans or A-line skirts–a fashion item harkening us back to Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s. In other words, practical and feminine,  and made re-popular by none other than Amy Winehouse (RIP).


But, really, how practical are they if her feet are getting wet?


You might as well just be barefoot! But of course, that’s the point, right?  We are so natural and in touch with the ground in our little femmey ballet shoes.

But, it wasn’t just the preponderance of all these infantilizing ballet flats that the young women are wearing that first annoyed me.  It was like, practically overnight. It seemed all shoes, even sneakers, had become wafer thin and flat. Adornment for your bare sole, bearing your soul.

I was genuinely trying to be open minded about the trend in 2007, when I bought a pair of Tsubu Japanese flat sneaker things–I basically didn’t have a choice–I couldn’t find anything higher and I did think they were cute.



Turns out, they are virtually unwearable to me because they’re so damn flat! Tsubu is still making them.  Can’t a short person get a break?

Clearly not for the last number of years.

Last summer, in the midst of my dispair over not being able to find a pair of shoes I could love, I fell for Cydwoq.  This is a high-end California company that makes their shoes by hand (!)  hence the other trend of paying top dollar to get craftsman, handmade shoes that hearken back to the pre-industrial days .  But I do love these quirky shoes–they are beautiful. But please, Cydwoq–put a little bit of height on them!



Alright, let’s get into my thoroughly unscientific theory.

In 2006, we were well into the second term of George W. Bush’s REIGN OF TERROR.  I remember this time, 2005 and 2006, as a time when it seemed like the “still strong” economy was destined to fall at any moment. Remember when the real estate prices were sky high and you couldn’t imagine how rent could possibly get more expensive?  Meanwhile, I was still getting paid the same wages I earned 10 years earlier. But, inexplicably, everyone had so much credit, the Iraq war raged on seemingly without an end in sight… remember back then?

I would argue that, by this time, taste makers were definitely sensing this couldn’t last–that everyone was so sick of all the BS hype and Abu Graib horror in someone else’s backyard, that the collective fashion unconscious sensed it was about time to get real, that we needed to find the bottom.

At All About Shoes, the height of a fashion timeline, we learn that in 1938-1947, Italian shoe designers brought about the cork platform sandals.  Wouldn’t that be during Mussolini’s time?  My point being, the shoes kept up the facade of the all powerful.

These are so contemporary looking, aren’t they?



Now, you might say that the fact that platforms were big in the ’70s messes with my theory about shoe height and economic high times, because everyone knows that the ’70s were super crappy, economically speaking.

But, I would argue, that the ’70s into the early ’80s–disco and glam–were all about inflation, superstardom, about reaching for the stars; a kind of andorgynous, anything-is-possible, we’ve-been-to-the-moon kind of time.


Bowie in the mid-'70s, from the Michael Ochs archive.


What Elton John was wearing in 1974.


And this spirit of disconnection from the earthly practicality certainly hit its stride again in the mid-’90s.

Here are some Italian numbers from 1995 by Rolando Segalin, where no height was too high and the Wall Street bankers were riding high on the Internet.



Can you say: bubble?

Anyway, don’t forget, this was also the “Gay ’90s!” Check out these shoes by Hot Topic, labelled as “Vintage ’90s Red Glitter Punk Rockabilly Lolita Towering Monster Heels” that I found on Etsy.  What could be more queer than these Dorothy Gale drag ruby reds? Pastiche upon pastiche. How many references to the past can you cram into a shoe?



Which is all to say that, in heady times filled with Internet bubbles and balanced federal budgets and queerness and raves and ecstasy, our androgynous fabulousness was expressed in queer shoes that lifted us high off the ground, and far away from the vagaries of straight reality. The bigger the bubble, the more psychedelic the drugs and the higher we teetered.

Until suddenly–like a big smack across our collective faces–in 2006 we are shockingly thrust back to earth (both economically and fashionistically speaking),  and we reach for shoes that keep our feet firmly in touch with the pavement.

Loafers, Uggs, ballet shoes: is shoe height prophetic?


Kate Hudson's Uggs, 2006.


According to NY Magazine, Capezio jazz shoes made their comeback in 2006, the same year the ballet shoe craze began; Uggs, too.  Did shoe designers know something that in their collective fashion unconscious sense?  It took Wall Street another year to catch up what they might have already known deep down: it was all crashing, so we better get low and comfy, because we might be here for a while. And sure enough, in the fall of 2007, Lehman Brother’s collapsed and everyone was walking around in shoes as thin-so(u)led as the bankers who drove our economy off the cliff.

Which brings us to the present. Slowly, ever so slowly, the ’90s are trending and the shoe height is as schizophrenic as our economy. Did you hear that Apple’s stock hit $600/share recently?  Is that a good jobs number or a bad one?

And, in the midst of our super fragile, tenuous “economic recovery,” with Europe ever so carefully inching away from the brink of certain doom, these shoes from the Manolo Blahnik appear in the spring 2012 collection!   It’s like candy for your feet!  Flat under the toes but with a totally new kind of heel:  one that makes you feel like you’re stepping on glass!  What could be more perfectly fragile and tenuous than that?



About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.


  1. NOTE: this post is by Samuael Topiary, not Michael. Technical difficulties made the differentiation difficult. Thanks, Topiary!

  2. Pingback: Heel Height as Economic Indicator

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