Hong Kong High Heels: Race as a Sartorial Product



In 2010, British luxury shoe brand Rupert Sanderson (RS) introduced a high heel pump “tailor-made for the Asian foot”. Modeled after the brand’s popular and classically-shaped “Winona” pump, the “Hong Kong” version was designed to compensate for what the company identified as the “higher arched and narrower” Asian foot. According to Sanderson’s partner in Asia, Bertrand Mak, the company “drew on a reservoir of knowledge…to gather that the feet of our customers are generally rather thin compared to their Western counterparts and that greater support at the arch is very desired.” The 10 cm (4 in) high heel “Hong Kong” pump was sold in RS boutiques and the luxury department store Lane Crawford for HK$4,880 (US$630). Soon after, Christian Louboutin and Salvatore Ferragamo introduced their own Asian-by-design luxury shoe collections.

These collections are part of an emergent trend in western fashion toward racially inclusive design. Over the last six or seven years, brands across the price point spectrum have become increasingly concerned with creating designs that include structural options for different racial typologies. “The Asian body” has received special attention, with particular focuses on the Asian foot, nose, torso, and waist. The implication is that the Asian body and its constituent components require or at least could be assisted by a more inclusive approach to design. Catering to local tastes and needs is not a new idea in the fashion industry. In the early twentieth century, European designers modified their high fashion looks with cheaper fabrics and less embellishments to suit the tastes, lifestyles, and budgets of white middle class US women in the emerging ready-to-wear market. One century later, this practice is still common. For Prada’s first runway show in Beijing in 2011, it switched out the fabric of its cotton dresses and recreated them with silk and a good amount of sequins to suit what it believed were elite Chinese women’s tastes.

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“Hong Kong” high heel shoes by Rupert Sanderson / Photograph by Earl Wan

In contrast to these examples, the Asian high heel represents a distinctly structural approach to fashion design modification that goes beyond the level of surface aesthetics and taste considerations. Externally, the look of RS’s “Hong Kong” and “Winona” shoes are identical. Internally, the shape, fit, and ultimately the function of the “Hong Kong” pump have been engineered for “the Asian foot”.

There is a problem however; there is no such thing as an “Asian foot”. As it was discovered soon after the “Hong Kong” pump debuted, its racially optimized design is not based on or backed by science. What’s more, according to one Hong Kong podiatrist, RS’s designed-for-Asians shoes are exactly the wrong design for Asians who statistically have wider feet and lower arches — by some 80 percent — compared to other racial groups. The “Hong Kong” pump was, in fact, based on a “last” or mold created from the casting of a single foot, Mak’s business partner Teresa Wong who, apparently, has narrow feet and very high arches.

The revelation that RS’s Asian typology was not empirically derived did not deter the company from further investing in and promoting its racially inclusive design. Two years later, RS created a full collection of shoes made for Asian feet based on the “Hong Kong” shoe mold. The Gold Collection, which includes ten shoe styles of varying heights, is named for its signature 23K gold leaf heel. It’s sold exclusively in the company’s Hong Kong boutique and costs between HK$5,000–10,000 (US$645–1,290). The company insists that both Asian shoe models have achieved high sales within its intended market.

For me, what’s significant about the RS example of racially inclusive fashion design is not what it gets wrong — though the number of things it gets wrong is substantial — but what truths it unintentionally reveals. RS’s designed-for-Asians shoes illustrate how the structure of fashion design is shaped by and inseparable from gendered structures of racial typology. That is to say, race and gender are as much sartorial constructs as they are social constructs. Race and gender don’t just constitute and organize unequal human relations, but our very relations to objects as well.

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“Hong Kong” high heel shoes by Rupert Sanderson / Photograph by Earl Wan

High heel pumps have had a historically fraught relationship with feminism. They’ve been interpreted as a visual metaphor of women’s hobbled status in a patriarchal society (e.g., the archetypal 1950s housewife), as a heteronormative instrument of sexual power (e.g., the femme fatale), and evidence of postfeminist liberation through consumerism (e.g., the affluent Sex and the City woman). But these dominant interpretations rarely account for how race shapes women’s relationships to these objects differently. Sartorial constructions of identities, like other social constructions, are embedded in the material realities of racial stratification.

Globally, women of color have been historically held to the lower status of service workers (in domestic environments of care and sex work and industrial settings of janitorial and factory work). They have been denied equal access to the financial capital that luxury shoes demand or the social capital they emblematize. The materiality of their racially gendered bodies and the symbolic meanings they connote have produced a corresponding sartorial differentiation.

Rather than the high heel pump of middle class respectability, racialized women’s sartorial construction has been through the stiletto platform (the material sign of sexually economical or “cheap” tastes and subjectivities) and the flat rubber-soled shoe (a sartorial marker and means of desexualizing and defeminizing the body until it is abstracted to just the value of its labor power). The not-uncommon experience of racialized women across the class spectrum whose bodies and clothes are mistakenly read as “the maid,” “the nanny,” sex worker, and so on indicates that class status does not necessarily offer an exemption from these sartorial constructions of identity.

The trend of designing for Asian bodies that RS represents suggests a possible intervention in the historical patterns of racial-sartorial hierachization. Asian women who have been a major part of western fashion’s invisible labor force since the 1960s seem to be finally getting some acknowledgement from the industry. Moreover, their racialized embodiment seems to be providing them an advantage in terms of premium level customer service. Yet these designs are not premised on the material reality or significance of racial specificities but on cultural myths and racial generalities — one Chinese woman taken to be the representational embodiment of all Asian women.

RS’s “Asian woman’s foot” typology does not correspond to any real anatomic racial classification. Instead, it is illustrative of an anatomy of racially gendered thinking. Consequently, its one-size-fits-all-Asians design is not actually providing better service to Asian consumers so much as its obscuring fashion’s continued racial stereotyping of Asian groups even at a time when their market power is growing.

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“Hong Kong” high heel shoes by Rupert Sanderson / Photograph by Earl Wan

RS’s notion of “Asian feet” has shades of — but does not mirror — earlier approaches to racial typology such as craniometry and phrenology that are now debunked as pseudo-scientific racism. In earlier racial taxonomic models, craniometry and its related disciplines produced anatomies of racial inequality. The body’s material structure was the site of racial meaning; measurements of the head offered a predictive measure of racial differences in intelligence, morality, industriousness, and so on. In contemporary racial taxonomic models like RS’s “Asian feet,” a new social order is produced around an anatomy of racial inclusion. Here, the body’s material structure is not the site of racial meaning but an index of consumer variation at a time when product customization is a key competitive factor of a fashion company’s business. This racially inclusive approach to design corresponds to what Sarah Banet-Weiser has identified as race’s shift in meaning from a bodily discourse to a branding concept and strategy. The significance of racial typologies is not as measurements of anatomic group differences but as a measure of a brand’s distinctiveness within a new terrain of global fashion capitalism.

RS’s particular attitude in fashion design is reflective of the all-new importance of cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Beijing and specific districts in Malaysia, Indonesia, and India to Western fashion companies. Recent reports of a slowdown in Asia’s economic growth has not changed western fashion’s perception that the Asia Pacific region is one of the brightest spots in the global fashion economy. From the above-mentioned luxury brands and many others I haven’t mentioned, western fashion brands are recalibrating their designs for this new racialized consumer market. In other words, the new economic geography of global fashion is fundamentally shaping design priorities and approaches.

But if “the Asian foot” does not reflect a statistical reality, why was it so readily accepted as an accurate measure of a racial trait? RS’s typology of the Asian foot as “thin compared to their Western counterparts” and more curved (e.g., higher arches) corresponds with racial stereotypes that are so widespread they operate as common sense logic. The West has had a long fascination — “obsession” may be more accurate — with Asian women’s feet as an exemplary symbol of “traditional femininity.” The typology is characterized by two consistent features: physical smallness and a daintily curved shape. In its most extreme form (e.g., Chinese bound feet), it is the embodiment of a bizarre difference. In its more popular forms, it is the embodiment of ideal diminutive femininity.

Either way, representations of Asian women’s small, curved, and hyperfeminine feet symbolize their racially gendered and sexualized difference from “their Western counterparts.” Simply put, what makes the “Hong Kong” design “Asian” is its characteristic non-westernness.

If Western women’s footprint is perceived as growing and deepening in the contexts of the social, commercial, and economic landscape (as a result of, say, white middle class feminist ideologies and practices of “leaning in”), RS’s typology of Asian women’s feet is suggestive of the less empowered status of Asian women. Even as some Asian women’s economic status is rising globally — though hardly all or even most Asian women — gender and sexual stereotypes that objectify and fragment their bodies remain pervasive.

A good snapshot of the current status of Asian women’s feet in the West can be seen in an Internet search of the key phrase. Try a Google search for “Asian women’s feet” and you’ll be inundated with links to fetish and pornographic videos and blogs from amateur and professional sites. The first three pages of search results — the most popular sites — are exclusively those in which “Asian women’s feet” (those that reflect and reinforce the typology) are objects of sexual fetish and apparatuses of sexual pleasure.

I suggest that the “Hong Kong” shoe design is shaped by an anatomy of racially gendered differentiation that follows from stereotypes of Asian women. Almost by any measure, popular western representations of Asian women imagine them as embodying traits that are more traditionally feminine than other non-Asian women. Asian women are perceived as smaller, daintier, more delicate, and both in need and appreciative of white men’s and white feminists’ protection (from oppressive brown men). Represented as traditionally feminine and so un-modern, they are seen as on an unequal footing with western women.

The “Hong Kong” shoe gives material form both to this stereotype and to its binary structuring. Recall that the shoe provides Asian women’s delicate features added support that is deemed unnecessary for “their Western counterparts.” The redesign, then, is less the result of personalized customization than compensation for a racial deviation from the normatively standard and racially-unmarked (white) woman’s foot that the Winona shoe is designed for.

The fact that the “Winona” and “Hong Kong” shoes are visually identical is part and parcel of the changing form of racial stratification. In sites as diverse as local policing to national security to fashion, racial stereotypes are now cloaked in techno-scientific language and methods about statistics and averages. Bodies are measured and evaluated for the expressed purposes of increasing safety, comfort, and fit — all for the public good. What’s hidden in the techno-scientific language and structure of the “Hong Kong” design is the racial logic of capitalist expansion. While they won’t increase the physical or social mobility of most Asian women, racially inclusive designs are mobilizing Asian luxury consumers’ new purchasing power to the great benefit of western fashion brands.