What's Behind the Cannes Flap over Flats?

Banning comfy shoes at film festival is a bid to exclude women from the workplace.

By Shannon Rupp 21 May 2015 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Actress Evan Herzigova in sky-high heels at Cannes premiere in 2011. Photo via Shutterstock.

Word from Cannes this year that women's unheeled feet are unfit to be seen sounds suspiciously like a scheme to keep women's films from being seen.

Naturally all anyone can talk about is how the CFP -- the Cannes Fashion Police -- have been buttonholing the heel-less offenders for their lack of "tall" shoes and shooing them off. This includes women film producers and directors, who are there for the screenings of their own films.

Commentators point out the irony of the CFP picking this year to make an issue of women wearing flats on the red carpet, since this is also the year the festival has bragged about being more welcoming to women. The festival kicked off Sunday night with Carol, a film about a lesbian love affair in the 1950s starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

Naturally, what Twitter is calling #flatgate led commentators to make the old joke about sensible shoes.

Ironic? Nah. It's the whole point of the flats flap. The CFP are demanding women wear "appropriate" high heels before being admitted to the working world in much the same way Victorian corsets were required by respectable women.

It's a clever trick that never gets old. Cannes is using fashion to handicap and exclude women producers and directors from the film world and then arguing that it's no one's fault: it's just that these women aren't dressed properly. With "proper" being defined by a bunch of men.

The politics behind flatgate are driven by the growing complaints about women being excluded from the film industry. The American Civil Liberties Union recently released a report complaining about women workers' treatment in Hollywood. The decline of women's participation in one of the world's major cultural industries has been the subject of much discussion and research at places like San Diego State's Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television.

When flatgate broke, the purveyors of identity politics assumed the CFP were attacking the elderly -- some of the women sporting sparkly flats had been in their fifties! Then they decided they were excluding the disabled. One woman apparently had a partial foot amputation that made wearing heels impossible.

Then the fashionistas pointed out that flats are all the rage this year among the "fashion forward." No less a stylemaker than Ines de La Fressange, a model still strutting down catwalks in her late fifties, was seen on the Cannes carpet last year in a floor length gown and a very fetching pair of flat, glamorous evening sandals.

And that's when it became clear that the CFP wasn't interested in enforcing fashion in the sense of style. They're using fashion as a form of social control, much the way our Victorian predecessors used outfits involving corsets, hoop skirts, and bustles to handicap society's most dangerous women. That would be the relatively wealthy and well-educated women who have both the time to fight for equal rights and the dosh to buy expensive clothes.

Right on cue, just as if she were some Victorian grande dame, the festival's official spokes-thingy Cristine Aime told the British press that women have always been required to wear formal evening dress at the invitation-only red carpet screenings. It was a matter of good manners to dress appropriately, she implied. Although she added that "there is no specific mention about the height of the women's heels."

No 'black tie' enforcement

Really? Then who was instructing her battalion of red carpet minions to deny entrance to invitation-toting women based on the height of their heels? Were these flunkies merely imposing their own taste?

I'd be more inclined to believe this was all about keeping things formal if it weren't for the fact that the invitations specify "black tie" and yet you see so many tuxedoed men on the red carpet strutting along sans neckwear.

No, given the timing of flatgate, it's clear that the CFP are using high heels as a sort proxy -- a way of putting the reins on women demanding equal access. Complaining about how these women dress is just a clever way of demeaning and trivializing those clamouring for equality.

Fashion tends to spawn cruel and/or demeaning clothing whenever women demand social equality. In the late 18th and early 19th century the pre-corset crowd was becoming dangerously well-educated, and lots of them were signing up for lending libraries. They were reading Jane Austen's smart, satirical novels and Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women, which inevitably led readers to get some uppity ideas about things like voting.

Cue the arrival of the vicious, tightly-laced whale-bone corset, a garment as likely to handicap a woman as any foot-binding scheme in China.

As actresses who are strapped into corsets for period dramas today can tell you, the garment is exhausting. The tight lacing makes it difficult to breathe. The boned bodice holds the torso rigid, which weakens the muscles and makes the wearer feel stiff and tired.

Those corsets hurt. They were distracting. The wearers got winded easily and women certainly couldn't run in them. Or even walk briskly. They had to concentrate more thought and effort just to get on with daily life, which robbed them of some of the energy they might have used for, say, overthrowing the patriarchy. Or just getting themselves recognized as persons under the law and citizens with a right to vote. That took almost a hundred years, post corset.

In that way, corsets always reminded me of the sort of skyscraper shoes we so charmingly called, "catch me, fuck me heels." Shoes so high they make a woman totter about looking as clumsy and vulnerable as a newborn colt. It's hard to get any work done in that sort of ensemble.

But it's the connection between tightly laced corsets and morally upstanding women -- from which we get the term "straight-laced" -- that's particularly interesting in the context of the Cannes Fashion Police. Society excludes the unacceptable, and for women, clothes have always been a marker of worth that goes far beyond their economic status.

Frequently, society made connections between comfort and inferiority -- loose clothes equaled loose morals. Women who went without corsets weren't just poor, they were whores.

Wearing corsets, and the related affectations like hoops, and bustles, prevented women from doing. Fashion gave women as much as an additional 15 pounds to haul around.

But society also worked the moral angle about how these women were being rude in some way if they refused to conform to corsets et al. They were forward. Immodest.

'Blue stockings' dismissed

That, for example, was the argument against women riding bicycles. Women pushed for fashion reform, which led to split skirts and bloomers suitable for cycling, but it also got them labelled as not quite nice enough for polite society -- they were often dismissed as "blue stockings."

That's the 18th century term for a smart, intellectual woman who challenges male authority and it tells us all we need to know about the connection between fashion and social control. A blue stocking isn't just smart and opinionated; she is someone so unfashionable she wears frumpy, comfortable blue woollen stockings that keep her warm instead of those chilly but stylish black silk ones.

The old joke I referred to earlier about lesbians wearing sensible shoes? That's one of those ways fashion was used to exclude the inferior. Everyone knows that real women -- that is, straight women -- make painful sacrifices that include wearing high heels and resigning themselves to their role as decorative.

Being comfortable, capable, and able to compete in the economic life of the world has always been likely to get a woman marked as socially inferior. And it's no accident that women's heels began to rise at roughly the time corsets were being phased out after the First World War.

It's also interesting that for women, high status clothing is almost invariably uncomfortable, if not downright hazardous. The opposite is true for men. You have to be mighty rich and powerful to go to the office dressed like Mark Zuckerberg.

And I note these things as someone who also loves a good pointy-toed stiletto, when I'm in the mood to wear it. Fashion as a form of self-expression is fun. Being forced into clothing that harms your health or makes it difficult for you to work is something else.

So that's what #flatgate is really about: the Cannes Fashion Police are attempting to demean and distract some uppity women who have been demanding equal rights in the film industry.

It has nothing to do with fashion or being socially appropriate. It has to do with a male-dominated industry using a high heel requirement as a tool to exclude women from their workplace. Just as their predecessors used corsets.

As a political strategy it's brilliant, since no matter how women respond, they lose what they really want: professional respect and access to the industry.

The CFP has changed the conversation at the festival. We should be talking about women's films. Instead, we are all, again, talking about how women look, not what they do.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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