I Am Woman, Hear Me Walk By GINIA BELLAFANTE Published: August 17, 2006, New York Times IT has been a few years since Ive closely followed the vagaries of fashion, but when I did, I seem to recall much mention made of a cobbler, Spanish in origin, who wielded a great deal of influence over the shoe-buying habits of women from here to Dubai. This gentleman Manila or Monala something or other, my memory is fuzzy built a career on the notion that women possess an inherent regality embodied nowhere more gracefully than in the arch of the foot. Miles Donovan/Art-Dept Miles Donovan/Art-Dept Marc Jacobs Miles Donovan/Art-Dept Chloé Miles Donovan/Art-Dept Balenciaga Miles Donovan/Art-Dept Louis Vuitton Miles Donovan/Art-Dept Miu Miu His shoes were alive, sensuous and ethereal, as if the real world were a place where people hopscotched on cotton candy. The shoes begged deference to female prerogative. In that capacity, they came to symbolize the thematic concerns at the center of an era-defining television show about women, dating and lunch. Here I refer not to The Sopranos. And yet, against all probability, that series has suddenly emerged as an apt reference in a discussion of high style because shoes have suddenly come to look like vessels for cement. The change occurred gradually this summers espadrilles were a precursor to the trend but it represents a rare seismic shift in fashion. This season, designers like Marc Jacobs, Nicolas Ghesquiere and Miuccia Prada have worked to promote the idea that footwear ought not to have a hint of the mercurial about it. A shoes message must be unambiguous, in the designers view, and it should say, in a literal sense, that a womans natural inclination is to stomp and squash whatever might present itself before her much as if she were a rhinoceros with credit cards. The shoes in question are black, bulky and baffling. They have high wedges or cumbersome platforms. Some take the form of demiboots. One pair of leather and suede ankle boots from Balenciaga comes with a harness, a sole thick enough to look like an encyclopedia and a pointy upturned toe, which leaves the top of the shoe looking like a basin. A pair of Mary Janes from Marc Jacobs are constructed to look as if the heels are in the midst of snapping off. Many of the shoes are embellished with clasps and buckles. One pair from Louis Vuitton has a sole in the shape of a wave and another from Junya Watanabe comes with metal spurs sprouting on top. The arrival of the shoes has brought out my inner Andy Rooney because every time I see a pair in a magazine, I want to know what woman in the world is going to want to look as if she were heading off to a meeting of Ironworkers Local 256 in a Weimar cabaret hall. And the handbags all look just as ominous, adorned with studs, chains and brass plaques. Theres enough hardware on a particular Miu Miu satchel to make it seem as if it came from True Value. Unlike the current shoes, the earliest versions of platforms, which appeared in Venice during the 16th century, were rife with connotations of sex. Called chopines, they could scale 30 inches in height. Women who wore them required the aid of servants to walk. At the time, some speculated that the shoes had been invented by jealous Italian husbands hoping to impede the movement of wives whose romantic attentions had meandered elsewhere. If the current style has anything to say about sex, it is the suggestion that women suddenly possess little or no enthusiasm for it. Instead the shoes convey the tensions of combative times, said Suzanne Ferris, co-editor of Footnotes, a scholarly anthology on the meaning of shoes. This sense of war and fighting and the need to be tougher seems evident, she said. So too does the specter of Michel Houellebecq, whose novels envision the modern world as a cauldron of social anxiety and political unrest that deaden the erotic impulses of the middle classes. Nothing about these shoes says Im really looking forward to my next eHarmony date. In Arianna Huffingtons view, the new shoes represent a hint of defiance of conventional stilettos. Sometimes I think when Im wearing those high heels my brain stops, she said. The effect of standing on them, all the energy it takes, it makes me stop thinking. While the seasons shoes and bags arent intended to please men, neither do they fully appease feminist sensibilities. Aggressively ugly fashion doesnt liberate women from normative standards of beauty; it simply sets the standards higher, demanding that you look like a cross between Gene Tierney and Cindy Crawford merely not to look hideous. Shoes that might have been crafted from a coffin exclude everyone but the exceptionally beautiful. Beautiful shoes invite the ordinary to feel less so. We wont be able to stop ourselves from going back to them, Ms. Huffington offered. The Manolo Blahnik shoe, then, is in some sense a great agent of populism. Further proof lies in its price. The Manolo has begun to seem comparatively affordable when held up against the cumbersome shoes of the season. A classic Blahnik stiletto is $515, but the new ankle boots from Balenciaga can cost $1,475. That seems like a whole lot of money for something seemingly able only to sink you in the Gowanus Canal.