the haute couture fashionable, and then across the social spectrum. When, exactly, the contemporary stiletto heel appeared, and who was responsible, are questions fashion writers and learned fashion historians alike appear to have great difficulty answering without liberal flourishes of ambiguity.
Contention and confusion: who ‘invented’ the stiletto heel?
There is more to stiletto heels than the deliciously dark side of life. As indicated above, the world of high fashion gave birth to the contemporary stiletto heel. New, post-war technology was, from the mid 1950s, able to deliver volume production of high, very thin heels that were strong enough to bear the weight of the person wearing them. Stiletto heels became ever more popular as the 1950s progressed until, with the aid of new marketing strategies that promoted an ethos of consumerism with the development of ready-to-wear lines – “an important democratization of fashion” according to one historian27 – they became ubiquitous throughout society, and not just with the fashion élite and with fetishists.
Exactly when the stiletto heel first appeared, and who was responsible for it, are sources of contention. However, fashion writers and historians usually refer to this contention only obliquely, if at all, in favour of presenting their readers with
definitive answers that on deeper analysis are questionable. Considering what is, in fact, a great deal of uncertainty surrounding its origins, the first recorded instance of the term “stiletto heel” in the public domain, at least in the English language, is very relevant.
Many commentators would no doubt have reason to reconsider words written in the past had they had access to the knowledge presented by the Oxford English Dictionary in mid-2007: revisions for its internet edition, OED Online, established that the earliest known mention of “stiletto heel” in print, in English, was in 1931. This is as follows:
1931 Vidette-Messenger (Valparaiso, Indiana) 20 Apr. 5/1 A shaved, modern *stiletto heel appears on trimmed opera pumps for tailored clothes.28
Since the Vidette-Messenger of Valparaiso, Indiana, is not the first title that comes to mind when thinking of newspapers, it is likely that “stiletto heel” was in wider-spread use internationally than previously believed. Additionally, the OED Online goes on to cite 1953 as the year “stiletto” is first known to have been used as an abbreviation:
1953 Newark (Ohio) Advocate 19 Mar. 8 (advt.) The Italian idea in fashion… Florentine stilettos… The slender fabric shoe, poised on a slim dagger of a
Prior to the OED’s update, the mention of “stilettos” in the New Statesman of
10 October 1959 had been cited as the first such instance of “stiletto heel” abbreviated to “stiletto”.30 The year 1953 is relatively early for an abbreviation that implies such familiarity; it is earlier than the September 1953 reference to “stiletto heel” in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, previously thought to be the first traceable instance of the term in English,31 and it is at least one year earlier than some fashion writers cite for the appearance of the modern stiletto heel.
Significantly, it was in 1931 that celebrated Italian–French shoe designer André Perugia made a very modern, very high, ultra-thin stiletto heel for his unique fish-shaped shoe for the French fashion footwear manufacturer Charles Jourdan. Caroline Cox refers to Perugia’s work in “an aeroplane factory” during World War One, “which was to have a profound effect on his design aesthetic, in particular the development of his prototype aerodynamic heels in steel alloy”.32 Direct references to the exact construction of the fish-shoe’s heel, however, appear to be elusive among fashion writers, and we are left to presume Perugia’s 1931 stiletto heel – surely a revolutionary development – was made possible by constructing it of steel alloy. Similarly, fashion historians also appear reluctant to clearly explain how Perugia, and, apparently, no one else, could produce such a heel in the 1930s, or why
see note †
Perugia himself did not produce more shoes with similar heels at the time.
Colin McDowell helps shed coherent light on this quandary:
The great shoemen of the century, such as Perugia and [Salvatore] Ferragamo, were always eager to experiment with new materials, shapes and textures and, in so doing, frequently evolved heel shapes of startling originality… Unfortunately, few of their more exciting ideas could be adapted for mass-production. They remain in the province of the “one-off” designer shoe, created to a standard of quality regardless of cost.33