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The sound of a loud pair of shoes can summon a range of associations for anyone within the clack zone. Depending on the speed and force of the wearer’s walk, these sounds can indicate nerves, authority, anger, hesitation. They can fill a room with a womanly aura — or a misanthropic vibe. Whether intended or not, these shoes are sure to get the wearer attention, Monash University’s Dr. Simon Moss tells Racked over email.
"In general, the research implies that people wear loud shoes because they do want to be noticed," writes Dr. Moss, who studies human decision making, among other topics. "This motivation to be noticed is especially powerful in people who are sometimes regarded as low in prestige or status — people who are the victims of prejudice or injustice. After people are noticed, they feel more powerful, offsetting the sense of powerlessness that prejudice can evoke."
When I got my first non-contract office job — a glorified combination secretary/dog walker/janitor position at a startup in Greenwich Village — I dropped $60 on a pair of black wooden stacked-heel Chelsea boots. In addition to a company email address and the promise of bare-bones health insurance in 90 days, the noise these boots made down the office’s wood floor hallway made me feel like an adult force of nature. Learning to be poised and ladylike as I mastered the boots’s lilt was an apt metaphor for being a hopeful but totally unsure 26-year-old woman getting the hang of feigning composure.
Now, a slightly nicer pair of black Chelsea boots are a major pillar of my daily uniform. Their ballad thuds organically — more as a side effect than primary purpose, unlike my first pair — in a different office’s wood floor hallway where I hold a far more senior position at a company I like. A few years of practice and faking have passed, and now I feel more fully formed as an adult woman.
"A shoe's volume empowers one," my friend Cay, a 31-year-old graphic designer and visual artist in Portland, Oregon, told me over email. "It speaks to glam rock, drag queens, party monsters — I admire [all] and wish to carry elements of them in my daily life physically or emotionally." Finding a little power in perceived camaraderie with tough powerhouses like Bowie or Divine can outfit a person with the strength to speak up during a presentation or wink at a cute stranger.
The noise these boots made down the office’s wood floor hallway made me feel like an adult force of nature.
Conversely, a loud shoe can give off a warning akin to "fuck off." In the aforementioned Chelsea boots, I walk the downtown Atlanta streets outside my office — thick with bumbling tourists and unwelcome male advances — with a different kind of authority, so loudly that a man once remarked: "Damn, woman. You got a scary walk." My response? "Good."
Body language expert Patti Wood says it’s about gait and weight. "If you’re putting a lot of force into [your stride], it's a stay-away sound," she explains. "If you're doing it seductively, like a little fun dance, it's a really different thing."
That latter part, Cal Tech professor and behavioral economist Dr. Colin F. Camerer says, is an attraction hinged on biology. "[The sound is] designed to advertise your presence, and maybe also the sound itself is aesthetically pleasing," he says, adding that "a clunky oaf shuffling along" can signify low self-confidence. "It may just be part of what people do to make themselves look attractive to other people… I think it's a marker. Suppose you're waiting at a front desk or to meet someone in a café. Your back is turned and you hear the heel click. It's a marker that a woman is coming."
Indeed, a cursory YouTube search of the classic "click clack" sound associated with women’s shoes — especially heels — reveals an affinity in the foot fetishist and ASMR communities. One of the videos falling into the former category has a description confirming Dr. Camerer’s theory: "When you hear the sound of woman walking in high heels, that ‘click’ and ‘clack’ sound, your imagination runs wild. How does she look like? Is she hot? What does she wear?"
"People who attract attention, in general, tend to be perceived as more sexually attractive," Dr. Moss says. "This effect persists, especially if the shoes are moderately loud." But just like with makeup or revealing clothing, there is a ceiling before such measures come off as clearly intentional — a quality known to cancel out attraction in our aloofness-loving dating landscape. "If too loud," he says, "people become more aware the person is attempting to attract attention, and this awareness can diminish sexual attraction."
From personal experience, I find this paradox totally true. When going out on a first date — or when I know there’s a high chance of running into an ex — I make sure to wear comfortable, loud shoes I can walk well in, something that communicates a certain degree of bad-assery and command. If they’re loud but so new I don’t feel 100 percent confident I can pull off a convincing strut when wearing them, I’ll pass — because what’s worse than going unnoticed when it’s important you look super hot and put-together? Loudly proclaiming a fashion fail by amplifying an erratic composure.
Consider the differing initial thoughts in two different scenarios while, say, at work: Steady, thudding steps would likely cause a hearer some neck tension (an angry boss?); short, clipped, and/or uneven strikes could communicate unease or nerves (an intern, maybe?). Related, too, is an often subconscious aversion to loud shoes for situations during which you want to dodge extra attention (i.e., showing up late for a meeting, being hungover at work, going to a party where you don’t know anyone, etc.).
"The sound of the heel is like ‘hey look hey look hey look.’"
But oh boy, when done right, high heels can be a potent way to reinforce biological wiring. "The classic view, which I think is correct, is that the heel tightens the calf and shifts the body weight around in a way that draws attention to body parts that are sexually important," Dr. Camerer says. "The sound of the heel is like ‘hey look hey look hey look.’ You're using another sensory modality other than vision or smell."
Science aside, even if an aurally loud shoe can help convey confidence, fertility, power, etc., it usually means bad news for your shoe. "If you hear a noise from a heel, you are damaging a shoe likely, or you are breaking down the pump construction, or you are close to breaking a heel tip with an exposed nail," Bootlegmarket.com founder and chief creative officer Sarah Ellison Lewis says. She’s also of the camp who finds loud shoes obnoxious. "For me, nothing good comes from hearing a ‘clacker’ making herself known, neither for the tile taking the beating, how hard that is on your back, and how you are destroying your shoes…"
Additionally, classically loud shoes — namely high heels — are also fairly notorious for damaging feet, sometimes permanently. According to the American Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society, extended wear of super high heels can cause metatarsalgia, a fancy name for pain in the ball of the foot, which can eventually lead to bone fractures.
Eh, foot safety be damned, as it seems loud shoes are here to stay for a variety of (sometimes unintentional) motivators, with one remaining paramount.
"The go-to explanation is that it's a way of getting attention," Dr. Camerer says. "It may be quite unconscious."
Even if women wanted the look of a high heel or wooden clog without the ruckus, they might not be able to, given the difficulties of shoe design. As Dr. Camerer explains, "You'd have to work pretty hard to design a silent high heel."