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No Pain, No Gain

Can Shoe Designers Take the Hurt Out of Height?

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page D01


At the Prada emporium in SoHo, the fall shoes have arrived. There are "pony hair" pumps with a keen toe and a modest heel. There are other shoes that look easy enough to wear while navigating an urban obstacle course. But those are not the shoes drawing all the attention on a late summer afternoon.

Prominently displayed next to the store's sweeping staircase is a pair of patchwork Mary Janes with a rounded toe and a four-inch block heel. They are cobbled out of a cacophonous mix of pink python, metallic gold calfskin and about four other shades and textures of leather. When a woman slips them on, her entire body pitches forward as if balanced on the edge of a precipice.

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Another pair of shoes drawing coos of delight is a pump in gold and olive tweed decorated with a tiny purple velvet bow and a sunburst of richly hued crystals. The narrow, three-inch heel looks as though it has been etched out of stainless steel and curves inward like the comma heel by celebrated designer Roger Vivier.

These are the sorts of shoes that tempt a woman into recklessness. Like scoundrel boyfriends, vodka-soaked olives and flourless chocolate cake, the shoes have little redeeming value other than a delicious, fleeting pleasure.

No good can come of indulging in them too often. The shoes are bad for a woman's feet. They can wreak havoc on the knees, the back, the joints. High heels shift a woman's center of gravity making her more likely to stumble. A woman cannot run in high heels, leaving her vulnerable.

Yet they cause her back to shift into a more prominent S curve, pushing the pelvis forward and derriere back and forcing her to walk with a hip sway that society generally agrees is sexy. Irresistibly sexy.

A host of companies have recognized and analyzed the illogical psychology at work when a woman buys a pair of shoes. Is it some curious synaptic misfire in the cerebrum that causes so many women to give form precedence over function? In a famous scene from "Sex and the City," Carrie Bradshaw looks into a shop window at a pair of rose-colored heels and coos, "Helloooo, looover." Most husbands do not receive such an enthusiastic greeting after a week-long absence. In 1991, the siren song of shoes was documented by Tuck & Patti in a tune called "High Heel Blues."

I was walking down the street

I was minding my own business

Then these shoes called out from the window

They said hey girl Patti come here you need to wear us.

Patti succumbed. And the shoes were uncomfortable, as high heels tend to be. But now shoemakers are promising that with the aid of advanced technology they can create a high heel that will titillate a woman's imagination while coddling her feet. These promised shoes will protect her joints from undue stress and they will keep her from feeling as though she might topple over at any moment. Manufacturers are striving to create the perfect union of fashion and function -- a goal as potentially lucrative as promising a woman she will be able to have her cake and her form-fitting pencil skirt, too.

Success requires re-engineering. The essential problem with high heels is impact. The click-click of heels on pavement is the sound of the body taking a beating. Because of the angle of the foot and the spindly heel, each footstep sends a shock wave through the body far more powerful and destructive than if the foot were swaddled in a pair of running shoes with thick rubber soles and a level footbed.

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