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

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.