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It is named after the stiletto dagger, the phrase being first recorded in the early 1930s. Stiletto heels may vary in length from 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) to 25 cm (10 inches) or more if a platform sole is used, and are sometimes defined as having a diameter at the ground of less than 1 cm (slightly less than half an inch). Stiletto-style heels 5 cm (2.0 in) or shorter are called kitten heels.
Not all high slim heels merit the description stiletto. The extremely slender original Italian-style stiletto heels of the late 1950s and very early 1960s were no more than 5 mm (0.20 in) in diameter for much of their length, although the heel sometimes flared out a little at the top-piece (tip). After their demise in the mid-late 1960s, such slender heels were difficult to find until recently due to changes in the way heels were mass-produced. A real stiletto heel has a stem of solid steel or alloy. The more usual method of mass-producing high shoe heels, i.e. moulded plastic with an internal metal tube for reinforcement, does not achieve the true stiletto shape.
Relatively thin high heels were certainly around in the late 19th century, as numerous fetish drawings attest. Firm photographic evidence exists in the form of photographs of Parisian singer Mistinguett from the 1940s. These shoes were designed by Andre Perugia, who began designing shoes in 1906. It seems unlikely that he invented the stiletto, but he is probably the first firmly documented designer of the high, slim heel. The word stiletto is derived from stiletto, which is a long thin blade, similar in profile to the heel of the shoe. Its usage in footwear first appeared in print in the New Statesman magazine in 1959: "She came ...forward, her walk made lopsided by the absence of one heel of the stilettos".
High heel shoes were worn by men and women courtiers. The stiletto heel came with the advent of technology using a supporting metal shaft or stem embedded into the heel, instead of wood or other, weaker materials that required a wide heel. This revival of the opulent heel style can be attributed to the designer Roger Vivier and such designs became very popular in the 1950s.
As time went on, stiletto heels would become known more for their erotic nature than for their ability to make height. Stiletto heels are a common fetish item. As a fashion item, their popularity was changing over time. After an initial wave of popularity in the 1950s, they reached their most refined shape in the early 1960s, when the toes of the shoes which bore them became as slender and elongated as the stiletto heels themselves. As a result of the overall sharpness of outline, it was customary for women to refer to the whole shoe as a "stiletto", not just the heel, via synecdoche (pars pro toto). Although they officially faded from the scene after the Beatle era began, their popularity continued at street level, and women stubbornly refused to give them up even after they could no longer readily find them in the mainstream shops. A version of the stiletto heel was reintroduced as soon as 1974 by Manolo Blahnik, who dubbed his "new" heel the Needle. Similar heels were stocked at the big Biba store in London, by Russell & Bromley and by smaller boutiques. Old, unsold stocks of pointed-toe stilettos, and contemporary efforts to replicate them (lacking the true stiletto heel because of changes in the way heels were by then being mass-produced) were sold in street fashion markets and became popular with punks, and with other fashion "tribes" of the late 1970s until supplies of the inspirational original styles dwindled in the early 1980s. Subsequently, round-toe shoes with slightly thicker (sometimes cone-shaped) semi-stiletto heels, often very high in an attempt to convey slenderness were frequently worn at the office with wide-shouldered power suits. The style survived through much of the 1980s but almost completely disappeared during the 1990s, when professional and college-age women took to wearing shoes with thick, block heels. The slender stiletto heel staged a major comeback after 2000, when young women adopted the style for dressing up office wear or adding a feminine touch to casual wear, like jeans.
Stiletto heels are particularly associated with the image of the femme fatale. They are often considered to be a seductive item of clothing, and often feature in popular culture.
Stilettos, like all similar high-heeled shoes, give the optical illusion of a longer, slimmer leg, a smaller foot, and overall greater height. They alter the wearer's posture and gait, flexing the calf muscles and making the bust and buttocks more prominent.
All high heels counter the natural functionality of the foot, which can create skeletal and muscular problems if users wear them excessively; such shoes are a common cause of venous complaints such as pain, fatigue, and heavy-feeling legs, and have been found to provoke venous hypertension in the lower limbs. Despite their impracticality, their popularity remains undiminished — as UK shoe designer Terry de Havilland has said, "people say they're bad for the feet but they're good for the mind. What's more important?"
Stiletto heels concentrate a large amount of force into a small area. The great pressure under such a heel, which is greater than that under the feet of an elephant, can cause damage to carpets and floors. The stiletto heel, unless equipped with a "heel stopper", can be impractical for outdoor wear on soft ground (such as grass, sand or mud), or in environments where floor damage is unacceptable (Lino/soft wood floors in a household or on aircraft).
In 1954, Roger Vivier designed the first stiletto heel with its infamous bold arch for the house of Dior. "Stiletto" is an Italian word for a small metal dagger.