'High Heel' Muses On Beauty, Power — And Stilettos | WYPR

'High Heel' Muses On Beauty, Power — And Stilettos

Mar 21, 2019
Originally published on March 21, 2019 8:33 pm

There was a time in Summer Brennan's life when she wore high heels almost every day — when she was working at the United Nations. It was a place, as she describes it, of "suits and ties, skirts and silk blouses ... freshly shined wingtips and yes, high heels."

The heels were critical, as Brennan saw it, to being the kind of woman — professional, feminine, poised — who marched those halls of power with confidence. Brennan is now a writer, and she explores all this in her new book, High Heel. It's a meditation on beauty and power — and stilettos.

In the book, she tells a story about toppling over in her heels on the way to a U.N. event on gender equality. "And I thought, gosh, you know, many of our modern articulations of feminism say we can choose whatever type of womanhood or femininity we want," she says. "But sometimes it's also interesting to take a closer look at some of these choices we're making and think: This is a bit strange — why am I wearing this thing that's dangerous in this way?"


Interview Highlights

On why she wrote a book about something that could be dismissed as frivolous

I think it's not frivolous, obviously, because I wrote a book about it. But I think the fact that even though it's not something that everybody wears, or is obligated to wear, some people are obligated to wear them, or at least expected to. And those people are usually women, and it's worth looking at why that is. And it ended up being a very interesting focus point for me about all these issues that are coming up right now with feminism and women's rights, in terms of where desires meet politics, and a desire for femininity meets a desire for freedom, and the points at which these maybe don't sit very comfortably together.

On her opinion that kitten heels were the only acceptable choice for Hillary Clinton to wear to the 2016 presidential debate

I think we still have a very narrow definition of what we find acceptable for women to seem both feminine and authoritative, but a high stiletto heel is sort of too youthful and sexy for an older woman, and sometimes we're more tolerant of some of these styles on women when they're powerful but not the most powerful person in the room.

I do actually think [that] is already changing, and I think there being a more crowded field of female candidates [in 2020] does contribute to that. There's a shorthand of dress that politicians have — the male politicians, they roll up their sleeves and then they're more of an everyman ... Elizabeth Warren often wears these three-quarter sleeve jackets and a fashion writer said that it invoked these rolled up sleeves. ... When there's more women around there's I think less scrutiny on an individual woman.

On whether high heels are feminist

I don't know. It depends on their application, and I don't have a clear answer, I think, because one doesn't really exist, and there's many applications in which people of all genders choosing to wear high heels can be empowering to them. But I think you also can't deny the history of what shoes that inhibit movement can mean for women, and especially women in public.

On whether she still wears high heels

Not as much, but I spend most of the year not in Manhattan anymore. It's an occasion-specific footwear, and lately I haven't had an occasion to wear them as much. ... Writing is more conducive to jeans and pajamas than a pair of stilettos.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There was a time in Summer Brennan's life when she wore high heels almost every day. Brennan was working at the United Nations at the time - a place, as she describes it, of suits and ties, skirts and silk blouses, freshly shined wingtips and, yes, high heels.

SUMMER BRENNAN: (Laughter).

KELLY: The heels were critical, as Brennan saw it, to being the kind of woman - professional, feminine, poised - the kind of woman who marched those halls of power with confidence. Brennan is now a writer, and she explores all this in her new book, "High Heel." It's a meditation on beauty and power and stilettos. Summer Brennan, welcome.

BRENNAN: Thank you so much.

KELLY: As I nodded to in the intro, you used to wear high heels every day, and you tell a story about falling, toppling over...

BRENNAN: Yeah (laughter).

KELLY: ...While wearing your four-inch heels. And a killer detail was that, of course, you were on your way to a U.N. event about gender equality.

BRENNAN: Yes, I was. It wasn't the first time I've fallen down in high heels. I mean, I was living in New York. I commuted in them. I was running up and down subway stairs. So it's the kind of thing that is bound to happen eventually. But that one felt particularly poignant, I think, because - like you say, because of the circumstances. And I thought, gosh, you know, many of our modern articulations of feminism say we can choose, you know, whatever type of womanhood or femininity we want, but sometimes it's also interesting to take a closer look at some of these choices we're making and think, well, this is a bit strange. Why am I wearing this thing that's dangerous in this way?

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, this is the undeniable truth, is that high heels cripple you. They make it hard to run, and yet you also - I feel stronger. I feel empowered when I'm wearing them.

BRENNAN: Oh, me too. And I should say, as I also say in the book, you know, of course not every woman in these types of work settings wear high heels. And even at the U.N., Samantha Power, who was the U.N. ambassador for the United States at the time, ran around the building wearing sneakers a lot of the time, and she was certainly authoritative. But that idea that you're supposed to present this kind of image was still very much present.

KELLY: You know, for all the people listening who are really happy wearing their sensible non-high-heeled shoes, why write a book about something that is, you know - one could make the argument - frivolous, not necessary?

BRENNAN: I think it's not frivolous, (laughter) obviously, because I wrote a book about it. But I think the fact that even if it's not something that everybody wears or is obligated to wear, some people are obligated to wear them or at least expected to, and those people are usually women, and it's worth looking at why that is. And it ended up being a very interesting focus point for me about all these issues that are coming up right now with feminism and women's rights, in terms of where desires meet politics and a desire for femininity meets a desire for freedom and the points in which maybe these don't always sit very comfortably together.

KELLY: Yeah, you're making me think of a point in the book where you write about Hillary Clinton. In 2016, she was running for president. She, like, at the presidential debates wore kitten heels, which, first of all, just explain what that is.

BRENNAN: So for those who aren't familiar, a kitten heel is a very thin heel that's not very tall.

KELLY: And you write that this was the only thing she could have worn, the only acceptable choice. Why?

BRENNAN: Because I think we still have a very narrow definition of what we find acceptable for women to seem both feminine and authoritative. But a high stiletto heel is sort of too youthful and sexy for an older woman. And...

KELLY: For a potential commander in chief.

BRENNAN: Well, exactly, right. And sometimes we're more tolerant of some of these styles on women when they're powerful but not the most powerful person in the room.

KELLY: And do you think those standards are changing even now, in terms of what the huge crop of women running for president in 2020 might be able to get away with on the campaign trail?

BRENNAN: I do actually think it is already changing, and I think there being a more crowded field of female candidates does contribute to that. And there's a shorthand of dress that politicians have. You know, like the male politicians; they roll up their sleeves, and then they're more of an everyman. And...

KELLY: Man of the people.

BRENNAN: You know, that kind of - exactly. And, you know, Elizabeth Warren often wears these three-quarter sleeve jackets, and a fashion writer said that it invoked these rolled-up sleeves, and things like that. And just when there's more women around, there's, I think, less scrutiny on an individual woman.

KELLY: Are high heels feminist?

BRENNAN: I don't know (laughter). I mean, I guess it depends on their application. And I don't have a clear answer, I think, because one doesn't really exist. And there's many applications in which people of all genders choosing to wear high heels can be empowering to them, but I think you also can't deny the history of what shoes that inhibit movement can mean for women and especially women in public.

KELLY: Do you still wear high heels?

BRENNAN: Not as much (laughter), but I spend most of the year not in Manhattan anymore. It's an occasion-specific footwear, and lately I haven't had an occasion to wear them as much.

KELLY: I guess it speaks to the writer's life. If you're tucked up in front of your keyboard, you don't - you're not strolling the corridors of power.

BRENNAN: Yes, writing is more conducive to jeans and pajamas than a pair of stilettos.

KELLY: Summer Brennan, her new book is titled "High Heel." Summer Brennan, thank you.

BRENNAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.