Stiletto: (sti let o) n. 1. a small dagger, having a slender, tapering blade.
2. a small, sharp-pointed instrument used for making eyelet holes in cloth, etc.
3. what the really fashionable people will be wearing this fall.
Yikes! Move over round-toed, comfortable clunkers. Spikes are back! Whether pumps with tiny ankle straps by Manolo Blahnik or pointy python boots by Donna Karan, shoes with high heels are suddenly must-have footwear.
But when you read the captions in the fashion magazines, it's hard not to think that the whole concept sounds confusing -- and quite possibly painful:
Techno bitch. Fragile. Aggressive. Sexy. Power. Leather. Feminine. Lethal heel.
You've got it: When you think about fall fashions this year, think mixed messages. The season's signature look is a pantsuit paired with leather pumps with hyperhigh, narrow heels.
And the crucial feature is the contrast: feminine mixed with masculine.
"That is the newest, hottest look that I have been seeing over and over again on the runways: A menswear, tailored suit with a definite feminine touch," says Lynne Montedonico, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase.
"They are wearing a real pin stripe, but with a feminine touch: perhaps a camisole peeking out from under and a pump with a high heel."
High-heeled shoes have become an important accessory, says Carmen Aseron, regional fashion director for Nordstrom. They're being worn in textured leathers, in exotic patterns such as python, and in eye-catching colors.
The point, explains Aseron, is to set off tailored elements of power dressing with touches of the feminine and perhaps the fanciful. "I saw the color red as an accent: a red shoe popping a dark suit in navy or charcoal," she says.
"The look was inspired by the juxtaposition of ideas."
The most stylish fall shoes have a vaguely threatening look: Their toes are super-pointy; they're made of hard leathers; their heels may reach 4 inches or higher and could double as weapons.
At Manolo Blahnik's that means midcalf-length, shiny black boots perched on teeny-tiny spikettes and ultra-sexy purple sandals held on by nothing more than a narrow, crisscrossed strap.
Candie's -- yes, the makers of the Candy slide that was so popular in the '70s -- is presenting a designer line with a "medieval disco" theme. Created by Betsey Johnson, these shoes are moody and maybe a little bit cruel.
There are bootees in textured brown leather complete with high heels and metal studs. There's a strappy, pointy-toed variation on the Mary Jane that will have MJ's mom gasping for breath. And there's even something called the Groupie, which is a padded boot in black/orange destroyer leather.
"Are they mean-looking? Yeah, I think they are, but go figure," says David Conn, marketing director for Candie's.
"They're also very sexy, and if you look at what's going on I think that's part of it. It's kind of a backlash against the whole grunge thing: Women want to look sexy again."
Women may want to look sexy, but after several years of wearing kinder, gentler shoes with square or rounded toes and clunky heels, it remains to be seen whether they will embrace the cramped toes and wobbly ankles that often accompany stilettos.
Designers and retailers know this. And they're sending out a few mixed messages of their own. Some, like Donna Karan, are hedging their bets by presenting customers with a range of shoe options.
Her fall collection includes lofty pumps, pointy-toed boots and earth-bound flats. "Donna really feels that you can always tell a person by her sole," says Patti Cohen, senior vice president of public relations for Donna Karan.
"She believes that there are different kinds of women and there are different moods of a woman: There are days when you want to put on those heels and days when you want to be more grounded with flats. So it's really what you want to project."
Other designers such as Kenneth Cole have created shoes with heels that are carefully sculpted to look high and narrow -- but that retain the stability of a thicker heel. His theory? That the days in which most women were willing to suffer cramped toes and aching Achilles' tendons for fashion may be over.
"We believe the comfort requirements of our customers have changed, so we are not doing the spike heel," says Paul Blum, executive vice president at Kenneth Cole.
"We are doing a new kind of high heel, it's not like the high heels that have come out in the past. It has the illusion of being a spikier heel, but it has a much more stable and wider base."
Here in Baltimore, retailers express reservations about how widespread the appeal of spike heels will be.
At Joanna Gray Shoes of London, located in Cross Keys, owner Judy Rudo figures that customers may find super-high, super-narrow heels too difficult to wear. "For fall, I didn't do much with the spike heel. I am very leery of it. The stiletto was supposed to be big about two years ago, but a lot of people refused to wear it," Rudo says.