At pains to look good

Life&style Some trends, like boyfriend jeans, for example, were easy to embrace for their dual comfort and cool. But this season, extreme fashion such as ankle-twisting heels and organ-crushing shapewear are the key items.

Some trends, like boyfriend jeans, for example, were easy to embrace for their dual comfort and cool. But not this season, says Laura Campbell, where extreme fashion such as ankle-twisting heels and organ-crushing shapewear are the key items. Can you handle it? How far will women go in the name of fashion? When Alexander McQueen's 30-centimetre Armadillo shoes hit the catwalk in October, they were deemed cutting-edge "show pieces" - the sort of shoe that makes women gasp in admiration, but which no one would ever wear. Surely? Astonishingly, the designer was inundated with requests for these extraordinary creations from women wanting to teeter about in the perilously high, potential ankle-breakers. McQueen never planned to produce the shoes, but is considering auctioning several pairs of the prototypes for charity.

Welcome to the world of extreme fashion, where the style-conscious have never been content with the ordinary. Though the Armadillo is new, the phenomenon is not. In the 16th century, wealthy Venetian women wore chopines - wooden platform shoes with such vertiginous heels, they had to be accompanied by a servant to whom they would hold on for balance. Similarly, in order to have a tiny waist, Victorian women squeezed into corsets that were so tight they would faint. Winning the style stakes has always required sacrifice, even if it means doing yourself an injury. The more outrageous the look, the better.

Many of today's outlandish fashions are found on the feet. Much like those Venetian women, we are not really concerned if shoes are made for walking or not. The Yves Saint Laurent 12.5cm Tribute Platform kicked off the trend in spring/summer 2007 and, since then, shoes have got ever bolder and higher. Outlandish shoes dominated the spring/summer 2009 shows; from Gucci, Marni, John Galliano and Burberry. Nina Ricci unveiled heelless, stilt-like boots. On the Prada catwalk, two models took a nosedive when trying to walk in their skyscraper platforms.

This was enough to prompt André Leon Talley, American Vogue's editor-at-large, to say enough was enough. "Designers with an obsession for towering torture chambers, often poorly designed for the well-being of the foot, must get a reality check," he said. His complaints fell on deaf ears. This season, designers have produced lethal spiked stilettos (Givenchy and Christian Louboutin for Rodarte), reverse-heel designs (Marc Jacobs) and curved heels or heels balanced on circular hoops (Chanel). It's become an obsession to design the most outrageous creations. But at what cost? Podiatrists believe platforms and stilettos cause the majority of foot problems.

"If I were a responsible person," said Christian Louboutin, "I would say it hardly seems the right time to be doing extreme shoes- but I'm not responsible. I'm a designer, and I think if you work in fashion, you have to give people fantasy." The other staple of the season with a dark side is underwear. There is the playful use of underwear as outwear - Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Shakira and Christina Aguilera have been seen running around wearing corsets.

However, not designed to be seen but worn by far more women are the heavy-duty contouring undergarments to give a smooth silhouette under figure-hugging outfits. The shapewear sector in the United States is worth a staggering US$880 million (Dh3,232 million) a year, and has grown 28.8 per cent in the past 12 months, according to the NPD research group. Spanx, the best-known brand, was launched in 2000 by Sara Blakely, who invested US$5,000 (Dh18,365) to start her business. After it was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, sales soared. The company sold US$350 million (Dh1,285 million) worth of shapewear last year alone. Spanx has spawned many imitators: at one point Marks & Spencer was selling five pairs of its "control knickers" every minute.

These products are said to reduce the appearance of your curves by five to 10 centimetres and celebrities love them. Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson and Cate Blanchett are just a few who swear by Spanx. Paltrow admits having worn two Spanx girdles so she could fit into her Seven jeans after giving birth to her daughter, Apple. "It's a great trick. That's how all the Hollywood girls do it," she said.

However, just as the Victorians found, restrictive garments can cause health problems. Professor John Hunter, who teaches medicine at Cranfield University in the UK, says they could cause breathing problems, heartburn and stomach ulcers. "The effect is similar to that of a corset, which all medical books have long since advised against," he says. Other control-knicker injuries include women spraining their thumbs trying to pull them up and putting their backs out while struggling with the heavy Lycra.

I know the French say that one must suffer to be beautiful, but there are limits.

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