Do you ever look at high heels and are astonished that they even exist?
They’re just weird. They contort your feet into strange angles, they’re barely functional as footwear, and sometimes when you walk in them or see other women walking in them, you’re struck by the absurdity of so many of us willingly wobbling around in such obvious discomfort that it makes you laugh out loud.
There you are on the sidewalk, laughing alone and limping along in your high-heeled shoes. “Why do we continue to wear them?” you ask aloud, to no one.
That high-heeled shoes look good is pretty undeniable. They add length to and slenderize the leg and turn the foot in a way that suggests a ballerina dancing en pointe.
You could argue that they embody the brand of femininity defined by submission and helplessness, and so are invested with a certain BDSM-style eroticism. Many have drawn comparisons between high heels and the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding, which was the centuries-long systematic breaking and binding of women’s feet for the purpose of making them more sexually appealing. As some have pointed out, foot binding was not only aesthetic: it literally kept women in their place. They
Yet they can also be powerful. They make you taller, they’re unapologetically sexy, and they’re part of a long tradition of lady professionals kicking ass.
It seems like a given, however, that this kind of shoe reinforces gender norms. If you’ve ever
But this is exactly how high-heeled shoes were originally perceived—as power symbols—that were designed, by the way, for men. Read on for a history of the heeled shoe that may surprise you.
High Heels—Created By Dudes, For Dudes
That chestnut about high heels being thought up by men to keep women bound in physically appealing yet ineffectual and painful footwear is compelling because it’s a narrative rife with symbolism. It aligns with so much of what we know about the dynamic between men and women throughout history. But this one isn’t true.
High-heeled shoes were originally worn by men. Although heels were depicted as early as ancient Egyptian times, they didn’t hit their stride in popularity until 15th-century Persia (modern-day Iran), where male equestrians wore inch-high heels.
In 1599, the Persian leader, Shah Abbas, sent his cavalry—at the time, the largest in the world—on a diplomatic mission to western Europe. Abbas sought support from Russia, Germany, and Spain in an attempt to defeat Persia’s enemy, the Ottoman Empire.
As the shiny new kids in town, the Persians inspired copycats.
“A wave of interest in all things Persian passed through Western Europe,” writes William Kremer for the BBC. “Persian style shoes were enthusiastically adopted by aristocrats, who sought to give their appearance a virile, masculine edge that, it suddenly seemed, only heeled shoes could supply.”
These boots were (actually not) made for walking.
Heels, as we’ve already established, are laughably impractical. It’s almost like they weren’t made for walking at all.
But that’s because they weren’t—they were made for sitting. On horses! (Remember the cavalry?) “The high heel was worn for centuries throughout the near east as a form of riding footwear,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more easily.”
By the time that heels had gained popularity in Europe, they had quite a bit going for them, being both functional and fashionable. “Since they showed that the wearer owned and maintained horses, high heels became associated with the upper class,” as Roman Mars points out in his design podcast, 99% Invisible.
Then again, the aristocracy, even if they did own horses, wasn’t exactly going around fighting battles, so perhaps heels still weren’t all that functional. Did that matter? Of course not! It only added to their appeal.
“One of the best ways that status can be conveyed is through impracticality,” says Semmelhack. Since rich folks “aren’t in the fields working and they don’t have to walk far,” they can wear whatever they please.
(Just think of the last person you saw wearing crisp, white pants, which you knew intuitively would be good for a total of two hours before being ruined forever by the dust that naturally accumulates on a chair, sauces
As the style became more widespread, though, the upper classes had to do something to show their separateness. So what did they do? They made heels bigger. “As the wearing of heels filtered into the lower ranks of society, the aristocracy responded by dramatically increasing the height of their shoes – and the high heel was born,” Kremer writes.
If you think European aristocracy had already done a pretty good job of putting their petty spin on Persian military footwear, wait till you hear this:
The king of France, Louis XIV, “was a mere 5’4” and “loved high heels,” writes Jennifer Wright for Racked. “It was he, rather than Christian Louboutin, who was the first to feature a red sole on the bottom of his shoes. He allowed the members of his court that he was closest with to wear similarly red soles.”
Soon this led to people painting the soles of their shoes red in an attempt to look more important. But the king was not having it. “In the 1670s,” says Kremer, “Louis XIV issued an edict that only members of his court were allowed to wear red heels.”
Sounds very on-brand for the Sun King.
Women adopted heels “to masculinize.”
In a twist that isn’t much of a twist now that you’ve read half of this article, women chose to start wearing high heels, and they did it to appear more manly. There were two types of women who did this: aristocracy and courtesans.
“In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding
Italian courtesans of the 16th century had beaten those women—generally aristocrats—to the punch and were already old pros at the incorporation of man stuff. They “began adopting high heels as a kind of sexy androgynous symbol,” says Wright.
“Courtesans […] had access to a lot of things ‘respectable’ women didn’t,” she writes. “They were the only women allowed to enter libraries. Since courtesans were supposed to please men, and pretty much interacted almost exclusively with them, they were often also supposed to like male things. This included reading, smoking, drinking, and wearing heels so they towered above everyone else.”
I can’t say from this description whether Italian courtesans were more of the Cool and Chill girls of the 16th century or pioneering feminists. (I am clearly not a historian.) I can say that I definitely would have tried to be a courtesan. (What
High heels then experienced a gendered death.
The European upper classes continued to sport unisex shoe fashion until the end of the 17th century when designs became more gendered.
“You start seeing a change in the heel at this point,” Helen Persson, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, tells the BBC. “Men started to have a squarer, more robust, lower,
Then, the Enlightenment happened, with its focus on reason and equality, and—poof!—high-heeled shoes, those ornamental signifiers of social class, went out of fashion. At least for dudes.
People were beginning to consider that any man, regardless of where he came from, could become a citizen with the proper education. Unsurprisingly, this drive for equality did not penetrate the barrier of gender. “Women […] were seen as emotional, sentimental and
Heels were now “the epitome of female irrationality and superficiality,” says Mars. Men abandoned the shoes entirely by 1740. And, though it took another five decades and the French Revolution, they eventually went out of vogue for women, too.
Heels made a comeback because of pinups.
It was the mid-19th century when, as Kremer explains, “photography was transforming the way that fashions – and the female self-image – were constructed.” Specifically, the photography used in dirty French postcards, featuring unclothed ladies in high heels.
Leave it to the French to bring back something useless but beautiful. (Blah blah, quaint French artistry, blah blah, The Hundred-Foot Journey, amirite?)
“[These photographers] embraced high, thin heels long before fashion did, because heels work great when you’re
And that’s it, folks. The long, winding history of the high-heeled shoe is one that you definitely would not want to walk in stilettos.