Both Men And Women Have Worn High Heels Throughout History

Could you imagine being a soldier riding a horse into battle wearing a pair of stilettos? As crazy as that may sound, it’s nearly historically accurate – except stilettos weren’t invented for another 1,000 years. 

Though they are more commonly worn by women today, high heels were originally made for men. High heels have enjoyed a largely unisex appreciation spanning many centuries and only became female coded in the last 300 years. Throughout history, the public opinion on how these fashionable yet painful shoes should look and feel and who should wear them has vacillated. 

High heels are an evocative symbol of power today. While these elements have remained consistent dating back to their early days, they also represented many more things: independence, social standing, self-importance, masculinity, and strength. Heel wearers were lauded for their fashion sense and despised for their perceived arrogance. 

As frivolous as dress shoes might seem, the origin of high heels is a microcosm of Western gender relations throughout the last millennium.

900s: High Heels Are Used In Horseback-Riding Cultures To Keep Feet In Stirrups

Photo: David Roberts/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first known high heel was worn by Persian men in the 10th century. They were neither decorative nor stylish, but they served a utility purpose: gripping the stirrups as they rode their horses.

This provided better control and the ability to ride closer to the horse. Heels were especially useful during wartime as the added control allowed the rider to remain steady on the horse and keep his hands free to access and deploy his weaponry. 

1500s: High Heels Are Worn By Courtesans

Photo: Maurice Quentin de La Tour/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

High heels were especially popular among one specific group throughout the 16th century: courtesans. The highest caste of harlots, courtesans were the predecessor to the high-end escort. 

They enjoyed privileges that were not available to most other women, let alone other workers like them. They were allowed to enter libraries and keep company with high ranking men. They were known to smoke, drink, and wear high heels to appear “elevated” above other women, and also because the men enjoyed what they saw. 

They were the women who commonly wore the dramatically high heel, often using male servants and noblemen as a human crutch. 

1500s: Aristocratic Women Wear Heels To Indicate Status

Reconstruction of an Venitian chopine, after models dating from 1500 to 1600. On display at the Shoe Museum in Lausanne.

The chopine platform shoe popular with women throughout the 16th century took heel wearers to unbelievable heights, with some shoes clocking in at over 22 inches tall. To keep from falling over, the aristocratic women would often use their maids as a crutch.

This was, understandably, a tremendous public health hazard. Many thought the bodily damage and potential miscarriage was worth it; and while no one could see the shoes, the real marvel was in the dazzling length of the skirt. The long skirts were meant to display wealth, as onlookers were scandalized by how much the extra fabric must have cost. 

Despite the finer shape of the heel, the high heel that followed the chopine was actually more balanced. 

1600s: Persian Migrants Bring Heels To Europe, Where Men Wear Them To Appear More Formidable

Photo:  Ninara/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

At the turn of the 17th century, Persian Shah Abbas I sojourned to Europe to seek diplomatic assistance in defeating the Ottoman Empire. Abbas and his entourage visited Russia, Germany, and Spain, resulting in a boom of interest in Persian goods and aesthetics. Aristocratic men quickly adopted the high-heeled shoe, valuing its projection of virile masculinity.

Whereas the Persian soldiers and noblemen used heels out of necessity, they were initially considered formidable and donned for their appearance. 

1700s: King Louis XIV Introduces High Heels With Red Soles To The French Court

Photo: Hyacinthe Rigaud/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first half of the 18th century was the peak of the men in heels movement. Louis XIV of France, also known as the Sun King, reigned over France for 72 years. Standing at 5’4,” King Louis was rather arrogant, to say the least. The Sun King moniker came from his deeply held belief that he was the center of the universe, and that France revolved around him.

Since Louis was a statistically below-average height man, and fancied himself as monumentally important, he was all about a high heel. He was known for the emblematic red-soled heel, predating Christian Louboutin’s red-bottom heels by 200 years. 

Plebeians were allowed to emulate him by wearing high heels, but only those in his court were permitted to wear the red soles. Doing so without prior authorization was grounds for punishment and being thrown out of court.

1700s: Men’s Heels Become More Broad And Sturdy, While Women’s Become More Decorative

Photo: Jean Francois de Troy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

After a few centuries of a uniformly chunky heel, the design split off into distinct gendered categories. Returning to the original utility purpose of the shoe, the men’s heel became more broad and thick. In contrast, the women’s heel became more tapered and served as a decorative garment. This shift would signal the impending end of society’s acceptance of the unisex high heel.

Mid-1700s: Heels Are Perceived As ‘Frivolous’ And Are Worn Exclusively By Women

Photo: LACMA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Despite the emergent popularity of high heels at the turn of the 18th century, they were quickly dismissed as frivolous women’s footwear. The design continued to skew more and more dainty and tapered over time, more closely resembling the thin heeled shoe that is worn today.

The purpose for wearing the high heel was not for emphasizing the shape of the wearer’s legs but rather the smallness of her feet. Skirts were still too long to show the contour of the foot, and small feet were a desirable feminine trait at the time. 

Late 1700s: Heels Go Out Of Style Following The French Revolution

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Soon after the gendered divide that diminished the widespread appeal of the high heel, one historical event in 1789 ended public interest in the shoes entirely. 

The French Revolution was a people’s movement that sought to do away with the aristocracy. Garb that emphasized social status became undesirable, and high heels became passe and undemocratic. The shoes were already widely dismissed for their “irrationality and superficiality,” so they were not missed. 

Mid-1800s: Photography And Adult Entertainment Reintroduce High-Heeled Fashion

Photo: French Walery/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although heels were considered irrational and superficial at the end of the 18th century, they found popularity elsewhere as men began to enjoy the effect a heel had on the shape of a woman’s posterior. 

The advent of photography in the 19th century was monumental for countless reasons, but it also ushered in the renaissance of the high-heeled shoe. Adult postcards featuring women in heels became very popular in France, and the rest of Europe and America soon followed. 

Effectively, the invention of print adult entertainment was directly responsible for the high heel comeback, cementing society’s correlation between sexuality and high heels. 

1940s: Pin-Up Girl Posters Correlate High Heels With Female Sexuality

Photo: Alfred T. Palmer/Flickr/Public Domain

The progression of adult postcards led to the widely popular pin-up genre. Exceptionally tall, thin, and with sharp heels, these provocative shoes were allowed to be more visually intriguing and less structurally sound as the models only needed to pose in them for a few minutes at a time.

The pin-ups were especially popular in the men’s barracks throughout WWII, which inadvertently caused an innovative shake up that would change the shape of the heel industry forever. 

1945: The Stiletto Is Invented And Becomes A Women’s Fashion Staple Following WWII

Photo: Arroser/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1950s, high heel technology allowed for a new type of heel that was thinner, sharper, and more chic than ever before. Up until this point, heels were typically made out of wood, so they could only be carved as thin as was structurally sound. Once shoemakers began using steel to create the structure of the heel, they could be much thinner and still safely support the wearer’s weight, and thus the stiletto heel was born. 

The stiletto heel was a small piece of metal attached to the inside of the shoe, allowing the heel to pivot separately from the shoe and allow flexibility for the wearer. The interior steel piece is known as the “shank,” and it is placed on the back of the heel, rather than in the middle like the original style of heel. 

Late 1900s: Heels Remain Popular, But Designs Become More Casual And Comfortable

Photo: Pudsly/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

2010s: As Drag Culture Goes Mainstream, Men Are Wearing Heels Once Again

Photo: DVSROSS/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

While performative cross-dressing has existed for centuries, our current understanding of drag culture quietly progressed in the shadows all throughout the 20th century. It has surged wildly in popularity throughout the early 21st century.

This newfound acceptance of female impersonation and gender fluid performers has made it fashionable once more for men to wear high heels, and this effect has spread beyond the realm of drag performance. This is not to say that the average guy on the street is wearing eight-inch stilettos, but tolerance for gender experimentation has blurred the lines of what clothing is “female” or “male.”

Time Immemorial: Stories Like ‘Cinderella’ Reinforce The Notion Of Heels As A Status Symbol

Photo: Oliver Herford/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The status and desirability of heels has been primarily governed by class signaling and sociopolitical events. While there are many intricate and discrete factors throughout history, many of those dynamics can be best understood through allegorical stories about coveting the high heel.

One example, and possibly the oldest, is Cinderella. Stories using the “slipper test” plot device have been told since the first century in Egypt, and many individual cultures have their own retelling of this type of story. In the case of the present-day Cinderella, the glass slipper represents access to a higher social class. Without it, she appears normal, dowdy, and as a laborer. Due to her beauty and virtuous neighbor, however, she is rewarded by being innately worthy of wearing the shoe. 

Reference

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