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‘The higher the better’: Why platform heels are back in fashion

<i>VCG Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images</i><br/>Shoes from the Qianlong Emperor's court at the Imperial Palace in Beijing.
Corbis via Getty Images
VCG Wilson/Corbis/Getty Images
Shoes from the Qianlong Emperor's court at the Imperial Palace in Beijing.

Megan C. Hills, CNN

Heels are making a serious comeback, with stars leading the post-lockdown trend for towering footwear.

Beyoncé donned a pair of this year’s “it” shoe — six-inch hot pink Versace platform heels — to an event in August, spurring an internet frenzy over the item. (The $1,425 Medusa Aevitas worn by the singer, as well as by Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa, were the second most searched for product on the fashion website Lyst.) Celebrities like Olivia Rodrigo and Blackpink’s Rosé were seen sporting similar styles at the White House and Met Gala, respectively.

“People just want to feel happy again,” said celebrity stylist Nicole Chavez in a video call, adding that high heels, particularly bright-colored and sparkly ones, are part of the greater “mood-enhancing” fashion seen across the board, from clothing to accessories.

However, within the wider trend for statement heels, the pivot to platforms — or ones with chunkier soles reminiscent of Y2K fashion — may be best explained after a year of loungewear-dominated wardrobes.

“We’re coming out of wearing sneakers and being in comfortable shoes, and so the jump from sneakers to stilettos is a big one,” Chavez said. “I feel like the platform, because it is more comfortable, is a great alternative.

“Right now, it’s platform everything. The higher, the chunkier, the better.”

But women aren’t the only ones wearing platforms. Rapper and singer Lil Nas X often wears them with his flamboyant outfits, while Billy Porter paired his sparkling Richard Quinn gown with statement platform boots at The Fashion Awards. “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang spiced up a more traditional facing black suit at the Emmys with silver ones by Brooklyn based Syro, which brands itself as “femme footwear 4 everyone.”

Syro co-founder Shaobo Han says that the shoes have become a tool for self-expression as people increasingly challenge and blur gender binaries.

“Being able to display that femininity (on the street) without feeling ashamed is powerful,” Han explained.

A sign of the times

The popularity of platforms has risen and fallen throughout history. Ancient platforms existed as far back as 6th century BCE. Over time they evolved, encompassing East Asian wooden styles worn by Manchu women during the Qing dynasty and the lavishly patterned geometric ones of the 16th century, known as “chopines.”

Noblewomen in southern Europe would wear these “wildly high” platforms, increasing the length of the textiles, according to Elizabeth Hemmelseck, the director and senior curator of the BATA Shoe Museum in Toronto. One recorded pair was as high as twenty inches.

The platform heel — which combined both a block sole and heel — is believed to have emerged in 17th century Persia. The style was worn by Persian horseback riders as designers attempted to “figure out the architecture of the high heel,” said Hemmelseck.

Once the high heel was developed, they fell into obscurity before coming back into fashion during the 1930s, 1970s and late 1990s and 2000s. Interest in platforms seems to grow during times of “social unrest and economic stress,” Hemmelseck observed.

“Why (is it that) during the Great Depression the shoes go bananas?” she asked. “Why during the oil crisis and the economic woes of the ’70s (are) our shoes going crazy again? Is there some commonality?”

It’s a trend that technology company IBM researched in 2011 with a study exploring why heels go higher during these challenging periods, as well as during later crises like the dot-com bubble bursting in the late ’90s.

“Usually, in an economic downturn, heels go up and stay up, as consumers turn to more flamboyant fashions as a means of fantasy and escape,” IBM’s consumer products expert Trevor Davis, is quoted as saying in the report.

If there was ever a fantasy shoe, it was the one created by Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. In 1938, during the Great Depression the designer released “The Rainbow” — platforms sporting a multi-colored sole that were dedicated to actor Judy Garland. They were made with cork as well as colored leather, a material that was scarce at the time.

Beyond being a form of escapism, however, platforms again rose in popularity in the 1930s due to pragmatism, Hemmelseck speculated. Many women at the time couldn’t afford a luxurious wardrobe, so investing in an expensive platform heel that could be worn with many outfits offered a way to participate in fashion trends through a “single outrageous accessory,” she said.

“(Platforms) did a lot of work, saying: ‘I’m a part of the times and so I still am fashionable. Just don’t look at the rest of what I’m wearing.'”

In the 1970s, the platform heel once again saw a resurgence, with the likes of David Bowie and John Travolta storming the stage with sky-high versions. On stars like Bowie, Travolta and Elton John, the shoes presented “larger questions about the (gender) binary,” Hemmelseck added.

Hemmelsack also noted the resurgence of platform heels for men during that era due to factors like The Peacock Revolution in the ’60s, which reacted to the US women’s liberation movement at the time by “looking at other models of masculinity around the world.”

Men during this period were “talking about this being a revival of (French King) Louis XIV,” who was known for his powerful, opulent wardrobe. “Can’t we Western men shake off this boring uniform of authority, the business suit and begin to connect with our innate masculinity through how we dress?”

Platform heels have also developed different connotations over time — and in some cases symbolize sex work. According to Hemmelsack, the “thick platform, with a narrow heel, (became) this sort of architecture of stripper wear” as early as the 1930s. Over time, it evolved into the clear Lucite platforms of the ’90s worn by strippers and pole-dancers, thanks to brands such as Pleaser, which then trickled into the mainstream in the 2000s as stars adopted them into fashion.

As for the platform heels favored at red carpet events this year, Hemmelsack said the style plays off this eroticism as well as the surge in ’90s nostalgia.

Beyond fashion

In 2021, “dopamine dressing” has become a widely used term in fashion, characterizing the desire for bolder, brighter, sexier outfits.

Some of Syro’s creations — such as ostentatious red platforms and the metallic silver ones worn by Yang — have coincided with this trend, selling out almost immediately to the surprise of co-founders Han and Henry Bae.

“We didn’t think something as loud as the (silver) shoe we created was going to be received so well, but again, it just shows that people want crazy things,” Han said.

But the platform shoe is more than just a fun piece of footwear — it’s a form of gender expression, added Han, who uses they and them pronouns.

While platform heels for men and non-binary people have recently become associated with fetish gear, they said, Syro was created to fill the need for “everyday platforms for non-conforming people… objects that really express how we see ourselves.” Growing up, Han recalled, femininity was “used against me,” but the shoes now act as a reclamation of that femininity.

“The ability to walk down the street in a pair of heels, swaying our hips, click clacking (in) these pinnacles of femininity, it’s just inherently powerful.

“People want to feel powerful and (be) powerful. That’s something I think platforms really make all of us feel. The moment you put them on, the additional five-inch height that you automatically get, you just start to suddenly see the world differently,” they said, adding they wanted to show “queer kids out there queer joy is real.”

“Living our life as authentically and as joyfully is a protest against the repression that we’ve been feeling.”

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