Cannes women have it all? High-heel controversy suggests maybe not.

A miniature scandal at the Cannes Film Festival underscores the tension for French women between 'having it all' and looking fashionable at the same time.

Yves Herman/Reuters
The shoes of an unidentified guest are pictured as she walks on the red carpet during arrivals for the screening of the film 'Sicario' in competition at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on Tuesday.

Can French women really have it all? Yes, but only if they’re in heels.

At least that’s the message coming from the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival.

Several women, including an amputee, have raised quite a stir over being turned away from the screenings at the annual, star-studded event on France’s Mediterranean coast for lack of appropriate footwear. So outraged are women around the world, it’s been dubbed “flatgate.”

The heels-only dress code, which the festival director denies is official policy, reverberates far beyond the the Gallic actresses, directors, producers, and composers milling around Cannes this week.

British star Emily Blunt spoke out, calling the flats discrimination disappointing, and that a smart policy would actually be the reverse. "We shouldn't be wearing high heels anyway,” said the actress, whose film "Sciario" debuted on Tuesday. "That's my point of view. I just prefer wearing Converse sneakers."

Perhaps the most electrifying case was that of film producer Valeria Richter, whose left foot was partially amputated. She told the BBC that a red carpet usher turned her and her flat shoes away. "No, no, this won't work, you can't get in like this,” she said she was told.

To be fair, this isn’t particularly a French issue. Flat footwear isn’t exactly embraced in Hollywood, either. But the brouhaha reminds us how much the French value looking chic – even if it hurts.

The dark side of 'having it all'

The issue goes to the heart of the perennial question – pondered by fashion experts and feminists alike: “Do French women have it all?” From the outside it often seems like yes – though disclaimer that we are talking, as always, about a certain socioeconomic demographic here.

France offers generous state-funded and quality preschool as well as subsidized nursery care. That essentially allows women to get right back into the workforce – routinely looking impeccable, of course, even at school drop-off. And if they want to grab a buttery croissant ahead of that morning meeting, by all means they do, since “French Women Don’t Get Fat” either, to sum up the findings from the megapopular book.

Mommy jeans? No way. As American journalist Pamela Druckerman, author of "Bringing Up Bébé," told Marie Claire magazine, it simply is a fact that French mothers look better. “I don't even gawk anymore when French mothers prance into the park dressed in high-heeled boots and skinny jeans while pushing strollers with newborns,” she told the magazine. "In France, there's no reason why a woman wouldn't continue to be sexy after she has kids.”

And yet, what some might call emancipation, to others is a whole lot of pressure on women – on or off the red carpet. And sometimes these standards come with a darker side.

As The Christian Science Monitor wrote after a French minister in a floral dress was hooted at in legislative chambers in 2013, too often “sexism and even sexual harassment have been overlooked or disregarded as the necessary evil of an otherwise lovely cultural relationship between men and women.”  All the government's ministers at the time were sent to 45-minute anti-sexism classes.

The controversy over footwear is particularly awkward timing for Cannes festival producers as “la femme” is a de facto theme of this year’s event. 

The variable height of the high heel

And if we are talking about equality here, then high heels should apply to men on the carpet too: after all, while the exact origin of high heels is contested, some of their earliest adopters were European kings and aristocrats interested in radiating power and prestige.

Most men consider themselves lucky that high heels fell out of style for their gender. Meanwhile, they evolved, and got sleeker – mostly in French fashion houses – over the centuries. There was only one blip in history for the high heel, the late 18th century, fed by the revulsion against the decadence of Marie Antoinette and all that symbolized it. By the time the century turned, however, flats were out again.

And it’s true that, especially in Paris, the wardrobes of women include very tall shoes. But despite little love for heels among the sneaker-loving women among us, one woman says that women can have it all – at least when it comes to their feet.

Shoemaker Tanya Heath in 2013 opened up a boutique in her name on the left bank of Paris, offering a sleek shoe with convertible heels. That means that not only can women change the color according to their outfit and mood, they can also change the height. A woman can wear low pumps for an entire day, and swap them for a higher heel for any evening occasion. “On the one hand the shoe should be a woman’s friend,” she says. “On the other hand it should make her look good.”

In fact, she says that an agent once called her asking for her product, “because her stars are literally crying because of the pain from their shoes,” recounts Ms. Heath, who is Canadian. At the time, her shoe wasn’t ready for that market. It’s too bad. It might have spared Cannes a lot of controversy.

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