{"'Liebchen, this is the other half of the earth. In Germany you would be yellow and blue.' Mirror-metaphysics." - Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow}

Stiletto’s & Schaftstiefel

“Mankind consists of consumers. Behind flags and flames, heroes and helpers, behind all fatherlands an altar has been erected at which pious science wrings its hands: God created the consumer! Yet God did not create the consumer that he might prosper on earth, for the consumer was created naked and becomes a dealer only when he sells clothes.” And shoes one might add. Karl Kraus was a wise man. Clothed consumers of the earth, unite!

The story of the stiletto heel starts in the fifties. Shoes were an essential part of the hugely successful New Look that Christian Dior kicked off in 1947. In line with contemporary fashion & design trends the demand arose for shoes that matched the simple yet elegant design style that was favoured in the fifties, also known as the international style. The stiletto heel roughly belongs to the same style paradigm as the Neue Typographie, which is characterized by clarity, asymmetry, control (“controlled dadaism”), functionalism, and sans serif letters. And yes, there definitely exists a style match between the look of a nicely balanced sans serif such as Akzidenz Grotesk or Helvetica and the austere albeit curvy lines of the stiletto heel of the fifties.

But just like so many things the so-called Swiss or international, consumer-directed, corporate style had its origins in the leftist avant-garde. One very striking example is El Lissitzky’s design and lay-out for Vladimir Mayakovsky’s collection of poems For Reading Out Loud. Notably El Lissitzky was one of the first Constructivists to disconnect the umbilical cord that existed between communist ideology and constructor-art, by transposing the constructivist art principles onto consumer advertising. Here are two poems, ‘Our March’ and ‘Left March’, from the good old days, with the poems nearly marching off the page in high and chunky Cyrillic letters.

With its origins in the leftist avant-garde the international style was a reaction against another sort of march: the rhythmic stampede of the Nazi Schaftstiefel that trampled all over Europe in the forties. The international style offered a counterpart to the highly politicised German design of the forties. From the beginning of typography Germany preferred blackletter or Gothic script (Textura, Rotunda, Schwabacher & Fraktur) over Latin letters, as they believed this was better suited to capture the German spirit in its distinction from the Latin mindset. Luther’s enormously influential German translation of the New Testament in 1522, e.g., was printed in Schwabacher because this further demonstrated how much Germany differed from the Latin (Catholic) world. It’s no surprise then that to many blackletter came to represent German nationalism, which disastrously culminated in the Hitler period. Some blackletter scripts from the thirties are known as ‘Schaftstiefelgrotesk’. A Schaftstiefelgrotesk is characterised by long black vertical lines resembling the boots that the German military preferred in that period, but in fact these scripts are – and this was probably not realized by the Nazi’s at the time - a mixture of Fraktur with elements of abstract geometric forms that originated in the sans serif types that were developed in the wake of the (constructivist) avant-garde.

In order to be complete it has to be added that blackletter all of a sudden became blacklisted as of January 1941. In an official letter über-antisemite Martin Bormann rejects blackletter on the grounds that it is supposedly a ‘Jewish script’: “Die sogenannte gotische Schrift als eine deutsche Schrift anzusehen oder zu bezeichnen ist falsch. In Wirklichkeit besteht die sogenannte gotische Schrift aus Schwabacher Judenlettern.“ From now on, he continues, every official German document has to be drawn up in “Normal-Schrift.” By the way, it is interesting to notice how he uses one of the most dangerous words around: normal. If you want to mainstream something, just call it normal, implying that what you don’t like is simply… abnormal.

And the moral of the story, my friends, is that from now on you can always counter criticism on your high-heel-wearing habits, by pointing out that typographically speaking at least it is more politically correct to wear high heels than long black boots (even despite Bormann’s letter)!

Here’s another pair of my favourite heels, again by Victor & Rolf. (And I love that book!)

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