Reconsidering the Stiletto

A delicate balance: The “Wrapper,” designed by Nathalie M for Charles David

They were so long ago banned from the feminist wardrobe that they had become de facto invisible to me. It was 1978 when I last picked one off the little shelf where it teetered on the pin of its heel, and that was only to land a job as a cocktail waitress in a restaurant where I’d been warned that legs would count. And so, as a cautionary measure in Bloomingdale’s shoe department, I try to be inconspicuous. I do not want my utter disregard for glamour to arouse suspicion when I ask to sample a strappy 3-and-a-half-incher, DKNY’s “Sexy” sandal — in silver, no less.

I feel almost guilty. There is something decadent about this, something I have determined is not me, out of character. I am cheating, deceiving, a woman fully and unmistakably inculcated in sensible-shoe-ism daring to try on a stiletto heel. I have been exposed already: At one fine shop in Beverly Hills the sales “associate,” as they are called in Beverly Hills, assessed my short, messy hair and rain-sodden Blundstones and tacitly removed me from her list of Potentially Serious Customers — but not before I persuaded her to drag out a pair of swank chocolate slingbacks (MaxMara’s “Radio”) and got a good sense of how a shoe like this could change my life. By leaving open a deep swath of instep, a high-heeled sandal adds a good 4 inches to a leg. The “Radio” transformed mine into the stilts of a doll, rendering my bulky calf a hint of shapeliness on an oh-so-slender limb.

I am ruined. In the relative safety of a mall department store, I am like a baby junkie going back for her second trip, primed to indulge. In addition to “Sexy,” I request Isaac Mizrahi’s “Sparkle” and Charles David’s “Wrapper,” the one with a teensy bow at the toe. “We only have them in patent,” the saleswoman says a little regretfully. “Patent’s okay,” I tell her. “Even in red.” I entertain myself with the notion that she looked just a little pleasantly shocked, but maybe the shock is all mine. I slip into one, then the other, noting with a measure of shame my chipped beige toenail polish and calluses. I stand. I giggle. Oh, do I giggle. I walk, and notice that I am not, as promised by Marilyn French in The Women’s Room, forced to stick my butt out, but to pull it in tight. I do not strut, I mince like a leggy fawn, and notice that as I do, I bend my wrists back and extend my fingers ever so slightly in a manner reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. It is an exercise as body-shaping as a girdle, except that it works from psyche to toe: These shoes are picture frames for the feet, dainty marvels of design engineering that present the most rugged dogs as art. I run out for a pedicure.

Unlike the heels of stilettos past, many of the new superhigh heels are wider and steadier, set midheel instead of dangling at the end of the shoe. “Sexy,” with an asymmetrical toe that disguises its width and straps placed strategically for maximum support with minimum leather, has an elliptical heel that looks skinny from the side, even though it’s a half-inch wide. The “Sparkle” has a heel like the dark part of a gibbous moon. “Wrapper” has an ankle strap that catches the back of your heel as you walk.

Still, they’re not much to stand on. I reject all those tiny sculpted heels so ubiquitous this season and decide that anything short of 3 inches is not worth the trouble. Why should I walk on such minimal surface area if it is not to vault me skyward? The thrill of these shoes is inseparable from their ridiculousness; in their ridiculousness is their beauty. No, you cannot run, skip, even walk with authority while they are on your feet, determining your gait, dictating your very identity. To get from the car to the curb, you would do well to ask for help. “Dangle your legs out of the car door,” instructs Michelle Parker at the Charles David store in Century City as I buckle the delicate ankle strap on a yummy red leather “Tulip” by Nathalie M. “And clear your throat. ‘Excuse me? I need some help here?’” Right, we can do that now, can’t we?

I turn my foot back and forth and admire the way the light catches the beading on the “Tulip”’s toe strap. I stride to the mirror, 3 inches taller and orders of magnitude more lovely — even my eyes look bigger — and conclude that stilettos are not uncomfortable at all. It’s just a different kind of comfort.