You could say that 2017 has been the year of the female, and of feminism finally storming the barriers through to the mainstream. Perhaps-not-so-coincidentally, it has also been the moment of the flat shoe. After stepping back onto runways several seasons ago, flats have gone from catwalk-to-sidewalk in a year that began with the Women’s March, that awesome show of girl power that took to the streets to demand true equality. And such marching is not so sensible in high heels — on a practical as much as symbolic level.
The next Women’s March, scheduled for 20th January 2018, will surely trigger another run on comfy walking shoes. But with the backdrop issue of sexual harassment (possibly 2017’s defining cultural story) firing up participants, the march might also highlight another benefit of flats: they allow you to run from a dangerous situation, as a recent New York Times article ‘Are High Heels Headed for a Tumble?’ pointed out.
Next January looks set to also be the date for another key development in the history of heel-averse shoes: the introduction of a blue ballet-flat emoji. That might not sound so groundbreaking but consider this: the current emoticon footwear choices for women are a red stiletto, a stacked-heel mule and an elegantly sculptured boot. In other words, the default setting for women’s feet is one of dainty discomfort, according to the universal and subliminally powerful language of emoji.
If French women were in charge of emojis, things would arguably be very different. Champagne and croissants would have been there from the start (oh, and why are we still awaiting an Eiffel Tower icon?). And we would certainly have a ballet flat by now.
French women know all about marching, of course. It was an army of Parisiennes who really got the Revolution going when they advanced on Versailles, angrily demanding bread for their families. Aristocratic heads soon fell, and high heels also tumbled from favour. The trend for women’s flats (and utilitarian dressing in general) was stopped in its tracks for a while, as a new class of upwardly mobile men relegated women back into the home, and into corsets and laced-up dainty-heeled boots. But then came the 19th century feminist writer George Sand, who kicked off a footwear rebellion, defiantly walking the Parisian streets in men’s suits, and shoes that made her feel ‘solid on the pavement.’ Her spiritual heirs in the gender-bending fashion stakes, Coco Chanel and writer Colette, also showed society that flats could be both sturdy and stylish. But perhaps the Parisienne who should be most credited with making flats feminine is Brigitte Bardot.
In the mid 1950s the ballerina-turned-model, on the cusp of movie stardom, asked dance-shoe designer Rose Repetto to create a ballet-inspired walking shoe for what would be her breakout role in the film Et Dieu Créa La Femme — a shoe that would allow her to walk with a dancer’s hip-swaying elegance and surety. The rest is fashion history.
To this day les ballerines — as this generic style of flat shoe is known in French — are a staple in every Parisienne’s wardrobe. Along with les baskets — tennis shoes such as the cult Bensimon canvas slip-ons. Flats make a Parisienne feel grounded, in both senses of the word, and sure of herself, and enable her to walk with confidence along cobbled streets. They allow her to get places. Not to mention help her work off a croissant or glass of champagne along the way — surely one of the key benefits of walking shoes? Because la vie, as French women well know, is all about balance — and that’s much easier to strike when you’re not teetering in stilettos.
Main photo: @repettoparis