​Stepping out: A history of high heels

"I think a lot of it had to do even with wartime technologies," said Small. "The use of steel and extruded metals allowed fashion designers and fabricators to think about a way to use metal in the heel. And once that was solved, literally the sky's the limit."

There is even a shoe in the exhibition from the mid-'50s from a company called Skyscraper.

"But even though technology allows us to build these stilettos, that doesn't necessarily mean anybody could walk in them," said Moriarty.

"Well, no, but it was sort of the aspiration to be able to walk in them," said Small.

That's never been a problem for Kristin Chenoweth. If the show demands it, she will even DANCE in heels, as she does in the Broadway musical, "On the Twentieth Century."

"I love this shoe a lot," Chenonweth said. "It's also bendable -- I can point my toe, I can flex my foot."

But at the same time, high heels force women to walk in a way that adds stress to the hips and back. So why do they wear them?

Exactly because of that walk!

"It causes your rear to move, it causes your hips to have to compensate and do the little wiggle, [and] the chest goes out," said Small. "So these are all biologically determined markers of mating attraction."

And it's not just males who notice. In 2013 the journal Evolution and Human Behavior published the results of a study focusing solely on the way women walk. Those in high heels were judged as significantly more attractive by both men and women than those who wore flats.

Has the stiletto been a polarizing part of fashion? "There are some people who think women look great in it, and women who feel empowered wearing these high-heeled shoes, and others who think that it's denigrating to women," said Moriarty.

"Absolutely," said Small. "Women can feel powerful when they wear high-heeled shoes, they can feel more confident, and that's all to the better. But it's a very interesting construction of power. Until men in powerful positions also wear high-heeled shoes, it's always going to be the question of what kind of power a high-heeled shoe really conveys."

That doesn't seem to bother those who know and appreciate a real killer heel.

"There's just something about a heel -- especially for women [in] a man's world -- that makes me feel stronger," said Chenoweth. "I mean, I could gouge your eyes out with my heel if I wanted to, I'm just saying!"


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