Every fabulously dressed Cannes diva this year—Julianne Moore in a striking, blood-red Givenchy couture gown, Rooney Mara in a white lace Alexander McQueen short dress, Emma Stone in a lacy black Oscar de la Renta frock, and our Sonam Kapoor in a lovely blue Ralph & Russo gown—wore high heels. Moore’s rather elevated pair were red velvet moulded in the texture of her gown; Mara’s were white, slim and tall—exactly as fashionable girls are supposed to be; Stone’s were even thinner, eminently foot sabotaging; and Kapoor’s blue pair, a silken shade of her gown, looked fairly well-starved.

Reports that some middle-aged women, including an amputee, were refused entry to the premiere of the film Carol, a lesbian romance set in the 1950s, because they weren’t wearing the “right footwear", force us to fret over the height and heft of heels. Else who cared? Even though Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux took to Twitter to refute the controversy that flats were not allowed, many voices trended on microblogging site, publications and blog feeds across the world. Film-maker Asif Kapadia tweeted that his wife had initially been turned away from a red carpet screening because she had worn flats.

“Flatgate" set foot at Cannes in the year the famous festival was labelled the year of the woman. There was a UN Women panel on gender equality to boot—where actor Salma Hayek passionately ticked off Hollywood for being unfair to women. Feminism wrangled with fashion at this high-powered event, opening up a pertinent war between clichés.

Tall and terrific they may be, but heels are fashion’s foundation tools. They are absolute musts for height elevation, poised gait and carriage needed to accompany the flamboyance of couture. They are an accepted and expected part of formal (female) elegance.

They are also sexy, seductive and severely punishing. Over the last two centuries, high heels have starred in a variety of female life scripts in different cultures—pornography, cinema, erotica, art, modelling, as power accessories for working women or even as pretty precursors to painful calves and damaged spines. So they do carry a lot of baggage.

Surprisingly, even as voices from across the world called the Cannes attitude sexist, at the festival, all the glamour girls, faces of cosmetic brands, award-winning female actors, supermodels, wives or hostesses continued to strut around in killer stilettos. Actor Emily Blunt wore an eye-catching pair of silver heels right after commenting that everyone should wear flats and that she particularly loved Converse sneakers. The Cannes dress code implies “smart footwear" but none of these high-powered women, not even those who participated in the UN Women panel, chose to walk their talk in flats to make a point. They prioritized appearance over substance, if we must use that jaded word in feminist parlance.

High heels though are not the only retrograde tool for successful women in an equal playing field. What about other conspiratorial cousins of divahood? If we must argue the outrage against high heels through the lens of feminism, then cleavage enhancers and padded push-up bras, false eyelashes, nipple patches, acrylic and gel nails, all are non-invasive but uncomfortable devices to accentuate the beauty myth. Like high heels, without which many a fascinating gown with fabric trains would drag like lace and pearl floor mops, these too are foundation tools of style. Should they be termed anti-feminist or femininity-enhancing? Perhaps they are both.

Even Charlize Theron, Sienna Miller, Maara, Moore and other sensational celebrities voted as this year’s best dressed at Cannes know that unlike everyday womanhood, dramatic physical appearance is about flaunting what you have after waxing and fixing it. Heels, nails, boob tubes, faux eyelashes, you need everything. To fitfully protest for or against one, you must ponder over the politics of them all. Does their use make these beautiful women reluctant feminists and thus bad choices as symbols of gender equality? Does it give them liberties of starry seduction but simultaneously snatch away the privilege of being the voices of change? Those are the questions to ask under the arch of high heels.

Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan, for instance, could certainly re-consider her red carpet routine of blowing air kisses, coquettishly pouting her lips and twirling flirtatiously before the cameras. It’s a rather “female" act. It doesn’t suit a Cannes feminist if that’s what she also wants to be, considering she was a part of the UN Women panel. Taking kittenish liberties with feminism is certainly off the rules as it panders to sexist notions.

There has to be a middle path. Ask French model, aristocrat, designer and perfumer Inès de la Fressange who has been on the world’s most envied best- dressed lists, yet never wears heels. Even at Cannes, where she walked in an evening gown and sandals in 2011. Or Hollywood star Emma Thompson, who went on stage last year at the Golden Globe awards holding her red-soled Louboutins in one hand and a martini in another. “I just want you to know, this red? It’s my blood," she joked suggesting how much her feet hurt in stilettos. That was a smart way to show (lack of) conviction for fashion.

The Cannes heels debate has certainly poured some water on fashion’s fireworks. Trend pundits could go on about how global style is “embracing" normcore, how “casual is the new formal" with shorts-suits (a pair of shorts worn with jackets) taking over and how flats—yes, flats—have become runway favourites. But on one of the most watched red carpets, where fashion is at its most vulnerable, most captivating and most loyal, even extraordinarily fashionable women return “solely" to tradition.

That’s why the best headline for the flatgate story goes to Elizabeth Semmelhack’s piece in The New York Times: “Shoes That Put Women in Their Place".

The Body is a monthly column on the body’s language in fashion.

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