Joan Smith: Mighty fashion grinds science under its high heel

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The Independent Online

Any research combining the words "shoes" and "women" is guaranteed to make headlines. So I wasn't surprised to read last week that "women who hope a pair of killer heels will help them attract a man are wasting their time", a revelation which was illustrated in at least one newspaper by a photograph of Victoria Beckham in a pair of platform boots with spike heels. Now, I'm far from certain that Ms Beckham was trying to attract a man – she works in the fashion industry, so she's hardly likely to step out in trainers – but I can say with confidence that nothing to do with shoes is ever that simple.

This research comes from evolutionary psychologists, who are the people who've told us in the past that girls like pink because our female ancestors used to spend much of their time foraging for berries (not blackberries, obviously). Evolutionary psychologists relate everything modern humans do to the long-ago past, supposedly demonstrating the primary role of unconscious reproductive urges; they're very keen on gender difference, even when what they're studying is as likely to have a cultural explanation as a biological one. This lot have studied male reactions to the way women walk and concluded that men can't tell whether women are wearing heels or flats. Apparently it's part of a wider study of attraction, but it's certainly not going to send me rushing to my shoe cupboard to clear out everything with a heel.

Shoes have become so high over the last couple of seasons that eventually there's bound to be a reaction in the opposite direction, but it hasn't happened yet – and it'll be dictated by fashion, not something as feeble as biological urges. Footwear that would once have been associated with show business and bondage has become mainstream, but the one thing that's certain about heels, hemlines, waists and shoulders is that they're subject to abrupt change. I love my blue suede cage shoes, but I don't think it'll be long before I'm gazing in rapture at kitten heels and secretly heaving a sigh of relief at not having to balance in five-inch stilettos.

In any case, I've never thought that women wear high heels primarily to attract men; there's something about stepping into them that immediately gives you a lift, psychologically as well as physically. Don't forget that any woman can wear fantastic shoes, no matter what her size, which means they're the one part of a catwalk model's outfit just about everyone can aspire to. At the same time, I don't think women take shoes quite as seriously as researchers and newspapers think we do – or that men are as uninterested in fashion as they claim to be. (Oscar Wilde pointed out in 1882 that men pretend not to care about their own clothes. "I am bound to reply that I don't believe them," he observed, "and don't think that you do either.")

Experience leads me to believe that men think they don't notice what we're wearing, but they're pretty quick to react if we turn up in something they don't like. And we're all conscious of gender stereotypes these days: women love talking about shoes and men love to laugh about women talking about shoes. Look, if heterosexual men suddenly started taking an interest in heels, it would totally spoil the joke.