On October 28, 1533, the fourteen-year-old Catherine de’ Medici married the Duke of Orleans, the second son of King Francis I of France. And a fine match it was, too. As a member of a powerful and wealthy Italian family, Catherine was orphaned at a young age and so became the sole heiress to a vast fortune. And though she was of relatively common birth, her mother had been the daughter of French nobility. Catherine was well-educated and had proven resilient as a political captive in Florence for several years.
But for all that recommended her, Catherine was, according to contemporary accounts, under five feet tall, had the “protruding eyes” of her family, and was “not pretty in the face.” Anxious to make a good impression on her groom and his countrymen she did what any sensible woman would do. She got herself a great pair of shoes.
Fortunately her cobbler knew just what to do. He replaced the common wooden soles of Catherine’s shoes with a narrow four-inch heel, making her appear taller and at the same time lending her an alluringly awkward gait, bunchy calves, and intense foot pain. The people of France, who had never seen such fashionable footwear, were impressed. Henry of Orleans, who would one day be King Henry II of France, wasn’t.
Alas, Catherine’s marriage was not a particularly happy one, but it did signal the beginning of a terribly uncomfortable fashion trend that has waxed and waned through the centuries, never entirely going away.
Now, I’m a fairly practical woman and I’m delighted that I don’t work in a field in which high heels are a necessary part of my professional image. Most days will find me sporting my comfy tennis shoes or, perhaps now that the weather is warming up, my trusty Tevas that have survived ocean waves, river muck, and lots of sunny days at the park. But I admit that every once in a while, I feel that pull to don a pair of stilettos.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to do just that. We attended the wedding of one of my husband’s longtime friends. As a member of the wedding party, my man was going to look pretty fancied up so I thought I’d make an effort. I bought a new dress and, of course, some great shoes to match and give me the bunchy calves that would be nicely set off by my hemline.
To my utter delight one of the first women I encountered as we arrived at the country club where the wedding was to take place remarked about how much she liked my shoes. I thanked her and commenced to help put the finishing touches around the patio area where the wedding party and guests would stand to witness the happy couple’s I do’s.
It was a beautiful day and the ceremony was sweet and intimate and perfect. But as I look back to how long I stood on a concrete patio in my heels, I do sort of question my sanity. When it was over and we’d danced our way through the reception and were finally climbing into the car at the end of the night, I kicked off the shoes and realized I had never in my life felt the kind of pain I then felt in my right foot.
When it still kind of hurt to walk a week later, I started thinking something might be wrong. It turns out, my fabulous shoes (and by extension, because I believe in putting blame where it belongs, Catherine de’ Medici) had given me a not-so-fabulous stress fracture. And apparently that really isn’t all that unusual. In fact, though a stress fracture in the foot isn’t quite as common among frequent high heel wearers as say corns, ingrown toenails, back pain, knee pain, and thickening of the Achilles tendon, it still happens. Often.
In 2003, the American Podiatric Medical Association conducted a survey and found that 42% of women admitted to wearing uncomfortable shoes for the sake of style. They also found that of the remaining 58% of survey participants, at least 2/3 were lying.
This has me wondering why we do this to ourselves. And, also, whether or not I have learned my lesson. I think Catherine de’ Medici answered the first question almost five hundred years ago. Her ridiculous shoes gave her the lift she needed to meet an intimidating situation in the eye, with style and grace (and back pain) she would one day need as Queen Regent of France. The second question is harder to answer. If I had to guess today, I’d probably say I’ll cautiously wear heels again. But then by the time I finish up six weeks clunking around in a remarkably less fashionable boot splint, I may have changed my mind.