Stilettos: the quintessential fetish object
It is not, in fact, contradictory to see stiletto heels coupled with a riding crop in the case of the former, and with a slave collar in the case of the latter,7 but testimony to the universal, erotic symbolism and pure style of the stiletto heel, which has the presence to harmonise with a range of symbols and behaviour across the fetish spectrum. It is, indeed, “the ultimate fetish”.8
Social anthropologist Ted Polhemus addresses this ability to be all things to all wearers and all observers:
...the precariousness of extremely high heels… has the effect of underlining vulnerability and dependence. Yet, at the same time, if the heel is sharpened into the stiletto style… completely contrary erotic connotations are also present: the feminine shoe as a weapon and a means of keeping men “under the heel” of dominant, even dangerous women.9
Thus we have shades of grey: femininity represented in complex nuances and subtle shifts between different aspects of personality, communicated by the style of high heel carried by a particular shoe or boot, or according to the context in which it is
worn, including when the wearer is male.
Photographer Housk Randall’s portraiture subjects in his collaborative work with Polhemus on body modification, The Customized Body, testify not only to these nuances – both the subtle and the not-so-subtle – but also to the feeling of empowerment imparted by adopting a bold stance in presenting personality, whether it be in everyday life or a semitheatrical context.
One of Randall’s subjects, “Pia”, expresses the contradictory–complementary dichotomies of the body-sculpting, emotional and psychological effects of wearing high heels: “It’s about being very vulnerable & [sic] very strong at the same time, about falling forwards off the shoes & [sic] pulling your ass in tight to stay upright, so your sexuality is raw, on the outside but untouchable”.10
We see in Pia’s account that the influence of such heels on the wearer do not stop at the psychological and emotional, but extend in a very real way to the physical by altering posture in a manner that many women (and some men) regard as enhancing their sexuality and allure. This is not a product of imagination: the anatomical effect of the high heel was demonstrated, with an appropriate example from the British designer Vivienne Westwood, by Gillion Carrara,
a professor of fashion at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, for National Geographic’s “The joy of shoes” feature: “Carrara places the shoe on the floor, steps in and up. ‘The breasts go out; the derriere juts back; the leg elongates,’ she says, as her anatomy puts her words into action. ‘Men find that very attractive.’”11
They do indeed. And so do many women.
One celebrated godfather of the modern fetish world, the Englishman John Willie, untiringly proclaimed his admiration for dangerous heels, the women who wear them, and everything they symbolise, for thirteen years in his magazine, Bizarre. Willie, whose real name was John Alexander Scott Coutts (1902–62), was an artist, photographer and writer determined to make his love of fetishism available to like-minded people – there were more like-minded people at that time than one might at first think – and he published Bizarre first from New York and then from Hollywood, from 1946 to 1959. Proclaimed a “great artist, [a] visionary” and “the Leonardo da Vinci of Fetish” by the renown American fetish photographer, Eric Kroll,12 stilettos featured in most of the artwork, and what may be termed “proto-stiletto high heels” featured in most of the photography, in every issue of Bizarre.
A younger artist whose career
see note †
overlapped with Willie’s was Eric Stanton (1926–99). Born Ernest Stanzone in New York, Willie’s work was an influence on Stanton’s comic and illustration art, although Stanton, unlike Willie, is mainly known for his focus on dominant women. They wore stiletto heels, of course. And, although Caroline Cox describes Stanton’s creations as “power-crazed women trampling on slave males”,13 many women in real life, apparently, were appreciative: Stanton’s obituary in the British national broadsheet, The Independent, revealed the following:
In 1984, the trendy New York club the Danceteria held the only exhibition of [Stanton’s] work to date. Four thousand fans turned up and made the event a resounding success. “Thirty-six women