It's partly sex, partly status and partly runway style pushing into the mass market.
Like the bust area, toes are generally seen as an erotic zone (toe cleavage anyone?), and the peep toe on a shoe is like a low-cut blouse that exposes cleavage. "There seems to be a lot of circumstantial evidence that people think of feet as a smaller version of the body," says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "The term 'toe cleavage' is related to breasts, and peep toe, as its name indicates, is like a type of peep show — a way of exposing part of yourself."
But the exposed toe had less risqué beginnings in modern Western civilization, according to Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The first time modern European women dared to show their toes was after the French Revolution, when the Neoclassical style influenced women to wear sandals to look like Grecian goddesses, she says.
Open-toe shoes made their way back into style after the Depression with a rise in the influence of beach culture. Sandals evolved into peep-toe evening shoes, a style that stayed strong through the 1940s. They resurfaced in fashion during the 1970s and more recently as tough, Frankenstein-goes-on-holiday, platform booties on the Alexander Wang spring 2009 runway. Since then, the style has been ubiquitous on runways and in shoe aisles alike.
Now it's fall and the footwear sitting in stores should be more suede and shearling than stiletto and open toe. But peep-toe boots still dominate sales floors, and toes will still be out in full force regardless of wind, rain or cooler weather.
The Kardashians could be partly to blame for perpetuating this peep-toe boot trend in a season when it doesn't seem to make sense. The reality-star sisters are seen in paparazzi pictures and on magazine covers wearing chunky peep-toe booties with second-skin skirts and ruffled blouses or strong-shouldered blazers. Sure, the juxtaposition of a shoe-boot against a thin ankle elongates and slims the whole leg, but such extravagant and impractical footwear also indicates that the wearer doesn't walk much farther than from her chauffeured car to dinner.
"We're seeing a lot of winter boots with an open toe and towering high heels," Steele says. "This has status implications, implying the message that you get out of the car and get onto the red carpet. You're not trudging through mud and snow. There is a definite combination of sex and status. These boots have a look of power."
For some, there is a simpler explanation for the peep toe's appeal. "It's a sandal and pump wrapped into one. That's what makes it so popular," says Steve Madden, whose footwear company is quick to jump on and reinterpret the shoe style du jour. The "two-fer" shoe gives a customer a little more bang for her buck in addition to the sex appeal of exposed toes.
A peep toe can be hard to wear. Sometimes the foot slides down and the toes stick out of the shoe, creating an unsightly "eagle talon" effect. A foot pad insert under the ball of the foot or a foam insert installed by a cobbler can help. Of course, attractive, pedicured toes are a must too.
Whether or not their feet were made for a peep toe, women are continuing to buy and wear these shoes even as they become an almost cartoonish form of footwear with over-the-knee lengths, Timberland-style uppers and combat boot details. Online retailer Endless.com has seen a large bump in sales of peep-toe boots over the last four years. This season a big seller for them is an olive green suede, military-inspired lace-up boot by Giuseppe Zanotti that can go "Jenny From the Block" as easily as it can be sleek and sophisticated.
"Boots are the part of clothing that we seem to be playing with the most," Steele says. "Most clothes now are quite bourgeois, but shoes can be quite out there. Just think of all those photographers at fashion week scrambling on the ground for shoe shots!" The toes are clearly the current erotic zone in fashion, even if that means that there will be a lot of cold feet out there this fall.