IT IS A PITY that we do not know who should be accredited with the creation of the stiletto heel, for thanks, riches, and fame would await the inventor worldwide.
In the minds of men, the stiletto heel conjures up an image of eroticism, a timeless stereotype of seduction, a helpless Marilyn Monroe with skirt flying high over a hot air vent, her bare legs alluringly displayed. For women, it is more a fascination with the miraculous effect the stiletto has upon even the chunkiest of figures: a pair eliminates bad posture, and forces the body into a more assertive position, tits out, bum in, but without actually having to think about it. It has even
been suggested that stilettos promote healthy breathing. Is there anything this shoe can’t do?! From fetish object to murder weapon (Bridget Fonda’s boyfriend certainly got the point in Single White Female), the stiletto heel has earned a place in history that will never be forgotten.
To celebrate the half-century that has elapsed since the first Ferragamo stiletto clattered down the catwalk in the early 1950s, an entire exhibition at the Castello di Vigevano, a short distance out of Milan, has been devoted to the history of the heel, showcasing over one hundred models from the early 1950’s up to more modern and daring creations. Ranging from the earliest stilettos by the shoemakers of Vigevano, to more recent models by the esteemed Jimmy Choo and Manolo Blahnik – the latter still manufactures some of his lines in the town itself – all of the shoes on show cry out for attention, and whether they scream style or sex, men and women alike will be riveted. The small provincial town of Vigevano has an important historical link with the stiletto, for, together with the neighbouring town of Parabiago, it is famed as the birthplace of the high heel. The towns are today still synonymous with the quality mark ‘Made in Italy’ within the shoe sector, as cobblers have been plying their trade in these cities for hundreds of years. It was in Vigevano that somebody had the bright idea of reinforcing the wooden high heel of the shoe with a metal cone support, the ‘spillo’. In fact, the Italian for a stiletto heel is actually ‘tacco a spillo’. The Italian ‘stiletto’ on the other hand refers to a small narrow dagger, used in self-defence more than five hundred years ago. It is not difficult to see the similarities when looking at a formidable pair of four inch heels.
Incidentally, England played a role in forcing the Vigevano craftsmen into the shoe-making trade. In the 1490s, the local baron’s ambitions made the town the centre of silk production for northern Italy, and it worked successfully in this area until a century later, when the small town was faced with unbeatable competition in the silk trade from England, where methods were more advanced. The craftsmen therefore decided to turn their hand to shoemaking, and soon became experts in working leather and other materials. This skill, coupled with an aggressive sales policy, ensured that the town’s name quickly became identified with finely-crafted shoes of the highest quality. With an increase in production of shoes and boots during the Second World War, Vigevano’s fame was sealed.
Whatever you may make of the stiletto, its influence cannot be denied. Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw coined the now popular term ‘Manolos’, that has become almost slang for a high heel of stiletto proportions. Madonna claimed that stilettos were ‘better than sex’ but whether she was referring to the pleasure gained from wearing them, or something rather more on the dark side, was not specified. Men, take your girlfriends and wives to shoe heaven at Vigevano, and for once, the only money you will have to part with will be the entrance fee; all models are strictly not for sale!
The Stiletto: Fashion and Seduction is on at Vigevano Castle until 25th May.
by Olivia Nairn