Yesterday I did something rather subversive: I wore flat shoes in Cannes. I did not, I must confess, feel especially Che Guevara-like as I waddled down the Croisette to interview a Hollywood actress in town to promote a big budget film. But in retrospect, I see myself as a modern-day Joan of Arc fighting the noble fight among the barricades.
As has been widely reported, this week at the film festival a group of women was turned away on the red carpet because they were wearing flat shoes; which in Cannes are presumably known as les chaussures du diable. That one of these women is allegedly an amputee adds further fire to my theory that this is all a plot from a bad Robert Altman parody of film festivals. The film-maker Asif Kapadia tweeted that his wife had initially been turned away because she, too, dared to wear the devil’s shoes (aka flats).
Sensing stirrings of unrest Thierry Frémaux, the director of the festival, took to Twitter to insist that “the rumour saying the festival insists on high heels for women on the red carpet is unfounded”. I like to imagine Frémaux writing that tweet while twirling his evil moustache and stroking a Christian Louboutin stiletto in his lap.
Frémaux knows he has room to wiggle here – you know, like a woman wiggles and wobbles atop her stilettos – because there is no actual written stipulation that women must walk around on stilts. Instead, the rubric states, with the usual vagueness, that women must be elegantly dressed with smart footwear. The Oscars are the same. And, speaking as one who has been reprimanded several times over the years by officials while covering the Academy Awards, I can testify that a world of Emily Post-like stipulations regarding etiquette resides within those fuzzy guidelines.
Once I was told off for wearing a dress that showed my (ugh, the horror!) knees; another time I was reprimanded for not wearing a full-length gown. Twice my much-beloved party shoes with three-inch heels were singled out by officials as not being really Oscar-worthy. I have come to think of them as the Bill Murray of shoes: glorious in my eyes but bafflingly unappreciated by the Academy.
Only someone bereft of the powers of sight, hearing and access to a televison or the internet will be surprised that intelligent professional women are expected to look like Barbie dolls at a film festival. Indeed, coverage of women’s fashion on the red carpet has become so demented over the past few years that some women have taken enjoyable stands against it, such as Elisabeth Moss sticking up her middle finger at the E! network’s Mani Cam (the now wisely retired camera designed specifically to inspect women’s manicures), and Cate Blanchett bending down to a camera as it lecherously panned up and down her body to demand: “Do you do that to the guys?”
Emma Thompson, who has always struck me as an excellent lass for a good night out, has for some time been waging her own war against high heels, including waggling them around in her hand, along with a martini, as she took to the Golden Globes stage in 2014, looking for all the world like a student on her way home from the uni bar on a Friday night.
As Tina Fey said at the Golden Globes this year: “Steve Carell’s Foxcatcher look took two hours to put on, including his hair styling and makeup. Just for comparison, it took me three hours today to prepare for my role as human woman.”
What has made Cannes’ open acknowledgement of this so amusing is that the film festival has attempted to put some kind of feminist spin on proceedings this year. Salma Hayek gave a talk this week, held by UN Women, on sexism in Hollywood. Probably the most adored film so far has been Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel about an affair between two women. But the movie industry’s sporadic attempts to pay lip service to gender equality are invariably laughable, because they’re done against a background of pay inequality and female objectification.
Cannes, trying rather frantically to quell the furore, has issued a statement saying that the “festival’s hosts and hostesses” have been reminded that “there is no specific mention about the height of women’s heels [in the rules].” But the fault here doesn’t lie with Cannes, or even film festivals, but with the hilariously retrograde assumptions about what still constitutes elegance in a woman.
I’ve seen some commentators online – all men, funnily enough – snark that it’s no different to demand women wear high heels than it is to insist men wear bow ties. They’re absolutely right, of course – if bow ties render them next to immobile and leave them in crushing pain with lifelong foot problems. And maybe they do; I’ve never worn one. I sometimes wonder if men think women have special powers that render them magically able to walk on their tiptoes all night without any pain (and enjoy hours of makeup and hairstyling, awkward and uncomfortable dresses and starvation diets).
It has always seemed exactly right to me that the most famous designers of high heels in the world, Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin, are men. The assumption still is that in order to look elegant women have to be in some kind of self-restraining physical pain. Because that still, apparently, is the look of a human woman.