The archetypal American femme fatale exhibited a funny kind of freedom. Where most of the women around her were subservient and submissive, she slipped across class and gender lines by homing in on a man’s fundamental weakness: his desire for sex.
Disguised in finery -- high heels, jewelry, hats and gloves -- the vamp used her appearance to distract from her ruthlessness. Her motivation was always money, which bought her independence, the true ambition of any wild creature.
The 1940s femme fatale was the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. Her shoes, peeking out, were her freshly polished fangs, even in wartime when shortages of manpower and leather led to the strict rationing of shoe manufacturing and purchases.
An early scene in the 1944 film version of “Double Indemnity,” presents the icy, ultimately murderous, housewife Phyllis Dietrichson racing down a flight of stairs, shod in medium-high white satin pumps with a flirtatious pom-pom on the vamp. Shining bright in the film’s grainy lighting, the shoes instantly let the audience know that here was a sexy, but potentially dangerous, heroine.
When the war ended, and the men returned, gender roles, once well-defined, were confused. Women had grown strong and self-sufficient, while men, overseas, had experienced real vulnerability. The classic femme fatale, in her exquisite pumps, crystallized the change: Women were now potentially scary.
In 1945, just as the war was ending, Lana Turner played the frosty vixen Cora Smith in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Turner’s entrance begins with the camera focused on her legs and feet, shod in a pair of white, open-toed pumps. It then pulls back to reveal her poised at the threshold of her husband’s roadside restaurant, in a white two-piece bathing suit and matching turban. Cora’s shoes were an invitation, luring an unsuspecting stranger inside.
But the fearsomeness would not last.
The end of the war helped bring the re-feminization of American women. And the next great Hollywood blonde would be Marilyn Monroe -- a sweet and agreeable, softer variation of the vamp type. Meanwhile, real women returned to their more soothing postwar ways and became, once again, less threatening to men.
Not surprisingly, the women who had worn pants, tied their pin curls under bandannas and skittered through vast factories in flats now faced entirely different sartorial needs. Fashion deprivation gave way to an age of prosperity that revolutionized the way European and American women dressed.
It was called the New Look. On the winter morning of Feb. 12, 1947, just a year and a half after the war’s official end, the upstart French designer Christian Dior debuted his first in-house collection in Paris. Among crowds of women in tailored skirts, strong-shouldered jackets, hats and gloves, young models swished onto the runway wearing what the designer called “corolle,” meaning “flower petal.”
Onlookers held their breath; the clothes were achingly, almost controversially, beautiful. Skirts, which in the past few years had crept up toward the knee because of fabric rationing, now swung in abundance. Shoulder pads were noticeably absent, replaced by soft, rounded shoulders that no one would mistake for those of a soldier’s jacket.
Clearly, the vamp had been subdued. And, not only had she lost her edge, she had lost her talons. On her feet were dainty heels -- higher and more feminine than the wedges that women were used to. By 1953, Dior would join forces with the French shoemaker Roger Vivier, and stilettos, with their needle-thin heels, would come to illustrate postwar style.
(Rachelle Bergstein is a writer and editor in New York. This is the second of five excerpts from her new book, “Women From the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us,” which will be published on May 29 by HarperCollins. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.)
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