Beauty Is Pain: Stilettos Have Historically Been Weapons

The act of wearing stiletto heels can often feel more like a battle of balance and composure than a simple fashion choice. Considering the history of stilettos, that is all too fitting. The word stiletto translates to “little knife” in Italian, and stiletto blades themselves have been used for fighting since the Middle Ages.

Despite the public’s dismissal of stilettos as an impractically sexualized shoe option for women — or anyone who dares try them on, the stiletto blades themselves were first utilized by knights when they stabbed opponents through the slits of their armor. The violent legacy continued in America with pre-Mafia criminals involved in the Black Hand extortions, who wielded the small but effective blades as go-to weapons.

The tiny, stylized death blades weren’t incorporated into shoes until the 1950s, when Andre Perugia effectively funneled the widespread masculine fear of women’s growing power (specifically their sexual expression) into the groundbreaking, and potentially flesh-breaking invention of stiletto heels.

Since their entry into the mainstream, it’s been consistently debated whether stilettos act as empowering symbols of professionalism and self-expression, or whether the very limits they place on women’s ability to walk and run prove them to be another objectifying constraint in the name of beauty.

Without diving into the feedback loop of what is or isn’t feminist, and whether fashion choices can be deemed feminist for the mere reason that women choose them, it’s interesting to consider how these blades evolved into high-fashion shoes.

The idea of stiletto heels serving both the purpose of high-fashion shoes and possible weapons is not a new one, as many a dominatrix can attest to, as well as the influx of Hollywood films portraying conniving women in heels. But can the combination of the violent history and the femme fatale stereotype be used for actual safety purposes?

For a handful of forward thinking women: yes. After experiencing a traumatizing assault while wearing heels, Jennifer Cassata, a level three black belt has been teaching stiletto self-defense classes since 2007.

“I’d been training in a martial art called Hapkido when I was assaulted on the street one night in NYC whilst wearing stilettos,” said Cassata, saying her experience motivated her to find ways to train other women in a self-defense that utilizes the very heels that often slow women down.

Because honestly, when it comes to the issue of stilettos straddling the line of fashion and weaponry: why not have the shoes AND blades too?