Here’s To The Stripper Heel

Designed for visual impact and endurance, the stripper heel has defied stigma to shine on the red carpet, the runway, and the silver screen.

When Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion performed “WAP” at the Grammys this year, it was against the backdrop of a comically gigantic stripper heel. The song is an unabashed celebration of female sexuality, but the performance was also a nod to Cardi B’s past experience as a stripper — something she has never shied away from discussing. “People say, ‘Why do you always got to say that you used to be a stripper? We get it.’ Because y’all don’t respect me because of it, and y’all going to respect these strippers from now on,” she told Cosmopolitan in 2018. “Just because somebody was a stripper don’t mean they don’t have no brain.” Though she favors “red bottoms” — as she called Louboutins in her 2017 hit “Bodak Yellow” — she still frequently wears her stripper heels.

Shoes with a high platform sole and a clear lucite stiletto heel (though many pairs feature a solid sole instead) have come to be associated with strippers, hence their name. The more modest version is a 6-inch heel with a 2-inch platform, with the most extreme measuring 10 inches high with a 6-inch platform. They’re also referred to as platform heels, pole heels, or simply Pleasers, a reference to the most well-known brand. The Pleaser Treasure features a storage compartment in the sole, and the Tip Jar comes with a convenient slot for cash.

Stripper heels are polarizing, but not in the same way that Crocs and Ugg boots, both of which have become more widely accepted in recent years, have been maligned as “ugly shoes.” They have always been subject to censure because of the stigma that strippers and sex workers more broadly often face. In 2010, Beyoncé and Gossip Girl star Taylor Momsen were both criticized for wearing them. “These slutty stilettos are just not cool. Unless one of these ladies is working at the Bada Bing! club or starring as a stripper in a movie, Lucite platforms should be banned,” wrote E! News back then. Chris Rock called them “the new whore uniform” in his 2004 HBO special. But the clear stripper heel had also been infiltrating the Milan Fashion Week runways in 2010, thanks to collections by Prada, Fendi, and DSquared.

In 2019, Hustlers, the film based on a real-life tale about a group of strippers who drugged wealthy club patrons and racked up expenses on their credit cards, was released, featuring Jennifer Lopez pole dancing to Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” in a pair of silver glitter Pleasers. P-Valley, the Starz series about a strip club in the Mississippi Delta, features an array of the shoes in every episode. Most recently, Zola came out, based on Aziah “Zola” Wells’s viral 2015 Twitter thread detailing the adventure she embarked on after agreeing to go to Florida with a fellow stripper. And over the past decade, pole dancing has popped up as a trendy workout, with celebrities like Kate Hudson and Busy Phillips testing out their skills.

Sex has always influenced fashion, and now that it is no longer off-limits in other areas of culture, that influence is more obvious than ever. In the past couple of years, Playboy has collaborated with fast fashion brands Missguided and PacSun, and Hustler teamed up with lingerie retailer Playful Promises. Fetishwear and kink-related trends have proliferated both on the runways and in stores. A decade after lucite heels dominated Milan Fashion Week, Valentino debuted a Pleaser-esque boot during its Spring 2021 showing.

“As stripper culture has become mainstream, so has the iconic stripper heel,” Jyotisha Bridges, a celebrity wardrobe stylist, told me in an email. “A look that once was branded as ‘taboo’ or ‘low class’ is being introduced to the masses with a hefty price tag. High fashion has a history of taking from the othered members of society and using their stories for profit on the runways. I think that there’s an important lesson on inclusivity in both work, art, and language here — why would having a certain style of heel mean someone was less than?”

In 2021, the stripper heel is undoubtedly a more omnipresent concept; the provocative associations don’t shock as much as they used to. Pop culture’s love affair with strippers has trickled down to a Gen Z audience more comfortable with sexuality than any generation before. On TikTok, the hashtag #pleaserheels has more than 118 million views, with users unboxing their shoes, showing off their massive collections, and performing pole tricks in them. One user turned her beat-up Pleaser into a planter; another user, @feliciamonique08, shares videos of herself wearing strikingly high heels while doing various athletic activities, such as running on asphalt and snow, playing baseball, and even swimming.

Pleasers also have a reasonable price point and are a lot more accessible than they were in the past. Instead of having to get them “from a stripper store,” as Miley Cyrus advised when she wore an embellished pair in 2017, you can find them at popular digital retailers such as Dolls Kill, PrettyLittleThing, and Shein.

While the stripper heel is a modern iteration, the concept of the platform shoe first appeared in Venice in the 15th century. Known as chopines, the thick-soled style was a signifier of upper-class fashion. According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, director and senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, incorporating a platform and a separate heel started in the 1930s. Old Hollywood stars such as Mae West, Rita Hayworth, and Carmen Miranda, whose ornate heels became her trademark, all helped to usher the modern platform into the mainstream.

In 1948, André Perugia, one of the first documented designers of stilettos, designed a fetish-inspired pump for the Parisian singer Mistinguett. In her 1996 book, Shoes: A Celebration of Pumps, Sandals, Slippers & More, Linda O’Keeffe writes that Perugia once said: “Every woman is not only conscious of her feet, but sex-conscious of them.” Fetish photography began to gain momentum in the 1950s, with pinup models like Bettie Page modeling lingerie, corsets, fishnets, gloves, and patent leather pumps.

The style popped up again in the 1970s, worn by stars such as David Bowie, Elton John, and Marvin Gaye (who wore silver platform boots made by his wife​, Janis). Stiletto heels finally entered the mix later that decade, when the disco era began influencing fashion trends. “The disco look was connected to ideas of sexual liberation,” said Semmelhack. “I find it really interesting that in the ’90s — and, of course, it really takes off at the turn of the 21st century — there’s this surge of interest for stripper-influenced clothing to integrate itself into women’s daily attire, like thong underwear.”

“Why would having a certain style of heel mean someone was less than?”

As for the origin of the lucite heel, Semmelhack called it a surprising detail, pointing out that clear plastic footwear began to show up after Disney released Cinderella in 1950. Marilyn Monroe also wore lucite heels in 1953’s How to Marry a Millionaire. “It’s almost like a play on a Cinderella shoe, or on little girls’ princess, dress-up shoes, more so than shoes that link closer to the history of fetish,” she said.

In 1990, Ben Hsu founded Pleaser. First, it was an importer and distributor, and then it eventually became one of the biggest destinations for specialty “sexy” footwear, with numerous sister brands such as the goth-themed Demonia and the retro-inspired Bordello. Pleaser’s launch culminated with the era’s penchant for fetish-inspired fashion — designers such as Versace and Mugler sent latex down the runways, and Jean Paul Gaultier put Madonna in a cone bra and corset for her Blond Ambition tour in 1990. And in 1993, Vivienne Westwood debuted the Super Elevated Gillie, a 4-inch front platform with 9-inch heels that would cause Naomi Campbell to tumble on the runway.

Although there are other stripper heel brands like Ellie and Tony Shoes, Pleaser is the household name. Sweetpea, a Minneapolis-based burlesque star, exotic dancer, and professional dominatrix, has about 20 pairs of Pleasers in current rotation, including rhinestone-encrusted versions, a glitter leopard print and a biker-style pair, and one set that looks like Converse. She said that the shoes are “exceptionally comfortable” and feel like sneakers. “Being a stripper, I can be in a pair of Pleasers for 10 hours, but with regular fashion heels, my feet might start to bark at me after a couple of hours,” she said. They also provide a “phenomenal leg extension” that looks good while simultaneously supporting dance moves, she said. “The shoe creates even more of a sense of power, beauty, and just sassiness on the pole because it adds that extra lift, length, and ‘feel’ that you can get when you’re moving around.”

Mitchell Travers, the costume designer for Hustlers, said that when he began doing research for the film, he figured there would be many different brands to consider. “I quickly learned that Pleasers are truly industry standard, as they are all mostly built on the same balanced last [the foot-shaped form used in the shoemaking process]. The shoe can have a 4-inch heel or an 11-inch heel, but the last remains the same, which keeps it as comfortable as a stripper heel can be,” he told BuzzFeed News. “It also keeps the dancer’s weight balanced so you don’t get specific toe or heel pain.” Travers thinks of Pleasers “in the same way” he thinks of ballet shoes, as they’re designed to support and enhance a style of dance.

Jose J. Palos, a freelance shoe designer for Ellie and Bettie Page shoes, said that there are a few technical and purposeful reasons that the stripper heel works so well for dancing. “The padding of the insole is cushioned three times more than that of a normal heel. It gives the ultimate comfort for dancing and standing during a long shift,” he explained. “The solid one-piece construction is super important, since classic heels would not be able to endure the demanding dance routines on a pole. The stripper shoe doesn’t flex or bend, which is important for full support. Standard heels would bend at the arch, snap in half, and/or the heel would break off.”

There are many more benefits, Palos said, like how the elevated height helps dancers get higher on the pole for aerial tricks, the ease of locking around the pole for stabilization thanks to an angled heel and one-piece base, and how the curved outsole allows for better movement or rocking.

“You put on a pair of Pleasers, and suddenly you're in that space to access more of your own sexual power.”

The general consensus is that stripper heels like Pleasers are mandatory for the pole, even according to Zola herself. “Kitten heels? On a strippers stage? IM HANDING OUT CITATIONS,” she wrote in a November 2020 tweet. Podcast host Joe Budden also recently singled out the presence of a low heel at a strip club. “I left,” he posted in a June 2021 Instagram story, along with a photo of a dancer wearing low-heeled shoes. To prepare for her role as Zola, actor Taylour Paige took a monthlong gig dancing at Crazy Girls, a strip club in LA. As she told Dazed, “I had these heels from (LA flea market) Slauson Swap Meet, and they were, like, LA Gears — not cool. One of the other girls was like, ‘Those are not bad bitch shoes. Everyone knows that those are cheap stripper heels.’”

Sweetpea, who is “only five-one and three quarters,” said that when she puts on a 6-inch heel, it’s like magic. “The proportion just seems to power me up in a She-Ra sort of way. You know how you grab the sword and you’re like, ‘I have the power’? You put on a pair of Pleasers, and suddenly you’re in that space to access more of your own sexual power, or swag, or whatever it is that you want to feel,” she said. “The second I put a pair of my Pleasers on, it basically boosts me in a whole different way.”

This applies no matter where you wear them. Helen Mirren said she wore stripper heels on the red carpet so she could “keep up with all the tall actresses.” “Four-inch platforms give you great height and make your legs look unbelievably long,” the 5-foot-4 actor has said. The 5-foot-1 Lady Gaga is also a Pleaser fan; she’s worn numerous styles over the years, including a 10-inch patent leather boot. Her infamous “meat outfit” included white Pleaser booties wrapped in real meat that was secured with twine. Back in 2009, Coco Austin, wife of rapper Ice-T, famously lifted weights while wearing lucite heels, and actor and former Playboy Playmate Shauna Sand rode a Segway in hers. In the 2015 period horror film Crimson Peak, Jessica Chastain secretly wore stripper heels underneath her Victorian gowns. “The 7-inch stripper shoes are probably a little secret,” costume designer Kate Hawley divulged to InStyle in an interview that same year. “She [Jessica] owned it and made that work and would run around on them — up and down staircases and all over.” (Even SpongeBob’s Patrick Star loves his Pleasers.)

Stripper heels command presence on the stage with their visual impact. But their aural effects can be equally powerful. Sweetpea calls it “the heel clack phenomenon”: the sound produced when a dancer smacks their lucite heels together loudly. She describes it as a sort of stripper “lightning bolt” or “whip crack.” “It's something that I do if I’m on stage, or if somebody is not paying attention. I’ll slide my heel out to the edge of the tip rail and just clap, like, right the fuck up, and they jump, and then I’ll smile back at them,” Sweetpea said with a laugh.

The fact that they come with their own sound effect is merely a bonus. Stripper heels are a sartorial conduit for empowerment and boldness, whether they’re being worn on the pole, on the red carpet, or on a Segway. “The second that you see somebody walk out in that kind of shoe...that platform, lucite banger of a heel, you’re like, Oh, fuck yeah,” said Sweetpea. “I know exactly the energy that they’re portraying.” ●

This story is part of a weeklong series about how we have sex now.

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