Platforms: Height Of Impracticality

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006

Platform shoes could be the eighth architectural wonder. They are remarkable examples of design but, like most of the seven fabled monuments of the ancient world, surely these extravagant pillars of footwear cannot last.

However exhilarating the shoe's concept, those wearers who equate inches with power must finally acknowledge the obvious:

Platform defies function.

At the recent Paris fashion shows, towering soles topped out at seven inches, with designers such as Christian Lacroix and John Galliano showing all manner of sparkles, tassels and lacings up top. At such heights, the platform shoe ranks as the skyscraper of footwear, but runway models were toppling over them.

"It's like walking on stilts," says Washington podiatrist Arnold Ravick, or "falling off a hill. You're up so high that the center of gravity and balance is off. It's much harder to walk."

Historically, shoes were made for walking, of course, as the Italian Cultural Institute's "Walking Art" exhibition makes clear. Roman soldiers marched to Hadrian's Wall on sturdy thin-soled sandals (which looked a lot like Birkenstocks), so it's fair to surmise that the Roman Empire would have been a lot smaller had those soldiers tried that trek on platform shoes.

Common sense would consign such footwear to historical oblivion. But the wobblies, in fact, have endured a long time. "Walking Art" traces the first elevated shoe to 16th-century Venice.

A pair of 12-inch burgundy velvet platform shoes stands out in the display. The exaggerated soles of these chopines are sculpted like inverted ocean liners, with small, ordinary lace-up booties on top. They were not mere fashion statements. Chopines were designed to elevate Venetian women -- literally above the floodwaters and garbage, and metaphorically above the lowly stature previously attached to their sex.

There has also long been the suggestion that courtesans wore them to stand above the crowd, so potential customers could see them. The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art argues that the height of the shoe rose in tandem with the nobility of the wearer, rather than her downfall. The curators of "Walking Art," Luciano Calosso of the Colosseum Associazione Culturale of Rome and theatrical designer Enrica Barbano, take no position.

There is no argument that these early platform shoes were only relatively stable for standing and almost useless for walking. Unlike modern fashion victims, the Renaissance women of Venice did not try to go it alone. Instead, they relied on walking sticks and a gentleman, who could balance the lady on his left arm while leaving his right free to draw a sword.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, when such acts as David Bowie and Elton John and Kiss rocked onstage in platform boots, and fashion designers picked up on the style. The fad faded, only to be revived in 1993, when Naomi Campbell walked the runway alone in Vivienne Westwood platforms and fell.

More women wear high heels than platforms. The high heel was invented in 1533 to give Caterina de Medici the stature of a platform shoe but with more stability at her wedding to the Duke of Orleans. The kings of France adopted high heels, as did the aristocracy, which explains why poor people who couldn't afford them were said to be "down at their heels." After the French Revolution, flat shoes -- the populist flip-flops of that day -- came back in style.

But high heels made a roaring comeback in the 20th century. After World War II, shoemakers acquired steel that made the stiletto possible. Spike heels have mostly supplanted platforms ever since. Their appeal is made obvious by a Donna Karan design that resembles a corset of black velvet and brass, with a zipper snaking up the back.

The form is great, but function gives spike heels their appeal, according to Ravick.

"The appeal is the way high heels make a woman walk," he says. Not so appealing is that "it's easier to fall off and break your leg."

He considers two-inch platforms potentially safer than six-inch stilettos.

Glass cases at the embassy offer examples of both, along with white leather thigh-high boots crafted for Sophia Loren in the 1966 movie "Arabesque," and soccer star Francesco Totti's shimmering silver-and-blue World Cup boot. Among the historic shoes, there are two examples of poulaines: slippers with long, pointed toes, which fashion-conscious men were willing to trip over for a few hundred years during the Middle Ages.

The collection of shoes was lent by the legendary Italian shoemaker Rossimoda, which supplies the world's fashion houses, and Arditi, a maker of theatrical costumes.

Why haven't platforms gone the way of poulaines, which men abandoned some six centuries ago? Perhaps because fashion has always exerted a more powerful pull on women, enticing them to apply a separate standard. In the design of shoes, fantasy matters more than function.

Walking Art runs to Dec. 1 at the Italian Embassy, 3000 Whitehaven St. NW. Reservation required through iicwashington@esteri.it or 202-518-0998, Ext. 1. Free.

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