The high-heeled shoe has often been subjected to a myriad of cultural interpretations. Provoking connotations of power, eroticism, fragility and femininity, the high heel swings metaphorically between the objectification of female empowerment and a more negative association with the subordination of women. That shoes have an integral, fascinating and controversial place in culture is without doubt. Within a commercial sphere, shoe sales generate millions worldwide. Culturally their roles in stories such as Cinderella and The Wizard of Oz exemplify the transformative, magical and sometimes dark powers that they can hold. As fashion accessories high heels transform wearers aesthetically, physically and emotionally. It is as meaningful physical objects that high-heeled shoes have been most frequently scrutinised.
In response this chapter takes a different approach by exploring meaning through the lens of visual culture. By discussing how shoes are represented in fashion photography, in particular through the work of the French fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, the paper brings further understanding to Western culture’s obsession with the mysterious and paradoxical nature of high heels. Bourdin was famed for his surrealist approach to fashion photography, focusing on theatrical composition and vivid colour use; he combined narrative storytelling with dark fantasy. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s Bourdin created campaigns for the renowned French shoe designer, Charles Jourdan, maker of exquisite high-heeled shoes. Drawing from semiotics, the author assumes the role of voyeur and observes the immersion of Jourdan’s shoes within Bourdin’s mysterious and sometimes sinister photographic world of storytelling. Bourdin’s stylistic placement of shoes captures the imagination of viewers, drawing them into stories of femininity, mystery and eroticism. Key to the chapters argument is how the medium of fashion photography enables the cultural interrogation of the high heel, and, in so doing, reveals how images create and disseminate meaning.