It is strange and striking that Claire Underwood, who is a human woman if also a fictional one, spends the early episodes of Season 4 of House of Cards permanently clad in stilettos. Claire, now the First Lady of the United States, wears her signature shoes—the shoes that complete her “power dress code”—not just when she is making public appearances, giving speeches and attending international summits and what have you, but also when she is not, technically, “appearing” at all. There’s Claire in the kitchen of the White House residence, hanging out with her husband while teetering in stilettos. There she is visiting her childhood home in Texas—among horse stables and tangled grass, upon soil that is so perilously soft—clad in sky-high heels. There she is nursing her mother in the same impractical footwear. In a scene that finds Claire exhausted from a day of, in every sense, dealing, she returns, finally alone, to the retreat of her lush bedroom, lays down on a chaise, assumes a fetal position, and falls asleep. In her heels.
(Did no woman, ever.)
What does Garber think this all-stilettos, all-the-time performance means?
Heels do for Claire what they will for anyone who wears them: They emphasize the thin lines between control and the lack of it. They emphasize aesthetics over practicality. They suggest privilege but also a kind of willful subjugation—an acquiescence to discomfort, to the dangers of walking in heels, to beauty standards that have been largely determined by men. They are shoes fit for a moment in which femininity is both a source of power and a source of its opposite.
I love it! Shoes are just a very modern means for disciplining and controlling women’s bodies. They function similarly to stays, corsets, and the modern version of these foundation garments, Spanx–which actress Robin Wright has talked about wearing in her portrayal of Claire Underwood!
So Claire Underwood walks—around the White House, around Washington, around the world—in a very particular way: deliberately, carefully, intentionally. She strides with confidence, but also with caution. Each step, when you are teetering upon the earth perched upon three-inch-high stilts, is precarious. So each step moves Claire forward; each step also threatens danger. She walks the way she does because of who she is, but also because of what she wears.
As a child of the 1970s, all I could think about as I read Garber’s thoughtful analysis was Steve Martin’s bit about “The Cruel Shoes.” I never understood this or thought it was funny–granted, I was probably 10 when I heard this and had never worn any heels. Garber’s article kind of brings it all together!