Did you know that high heels used to be wornby upper class men? And that WWII helped bring high heels backinto fashion for women? If I ask you to imagine “high heel shoes”, your initial thought process probably doesn’t include much about men.
And that’s because, today, high heels areprimarily worn by women, and although we’re familiar with the shoe, it has a variety ofstyles, shapes, sizes, and social meanings.
But whether you’re admiring them, or figuringout how to keep your balance in a pair of sky high stilettos, heels and women tend togo together in the modern mind.
But have you ever wondered how something thathas origins as a shoe for horseback riders, as well as male warriors and aristocrats, ended up in the world of women’s high fashion? So to understand this, first we have to askourselves: What were some of the earliest kinds of highheels and why were men wearing them? So the answer to this question is part warrior, part fancy pants aristocrats, and part horse… which kind of sounds like a formula for thechimera of my nightmares.
But anyway, on his podcast “99% Invisible”, Roman Mars notes that the earliest wearers of high heels were men, not women.
He notes that as early as the 10th centurymen who rode horseback in certain cultures wore heeled boots because it made it easierto stay inside the stirrups.
And we can see that this style persists incertain kinds of riding boots today, most notably cowboy boots.
According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, the SeniorCurator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (which is awesome, I’ve been there), highheels were essential for horseback riders and marksmen in Persia (or modern day Iran).
She notes, “When the soldier stood up in hisstirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow andarrow more effectively.
” At the end of the 16th century Persia's ShahAbbas the First had an impressive cavalry, or soldiers who fight on horseback.
When he sent the first Persian diplomats toRussia, Germany, and Spain in 1599, to help form alliances to defeat the Ottoman Empire, Persian fashion and heels became something of a fashion craze… for European men.
especially wealthy aristocratic men.
And I mean, I understand, because those Persiandiplomats were looking pretty fresh.
After that, heels for men, became a fashionstatement linked to virility and high class.
So by the 17th and early 18th century, westart to see stylish high heeled shoes on kings and noblemen throughout Western Europe.
But just like today, walking around in heelswas largely impractical and painful, especially in cobbled streets.
But Semmelhack notes that this was kind ofthe point (pun intended) since wearing a shoe you couldn’t walk far in or work in wasa sign of wealth, distinction, and high birth.
And the original red bottoms weren’t Louboutinsbut a different Louis altogether, that’s French King Louis XIV.
He wore high heels with red paint on themin the 1670s and soon had all of his courtiers wearing red heels to show loyalty.
Ok so early high heels were kind of a man’sman’s world.
But that leads us to the second question: When did the heel high become associated withwomen? Well the trend spread to women around the1630s, and the shoes were worn for somewhat similar reasons as men.
That is to signal class status and high style.
But unlike their male counterparts, who weredonning squarer heels with broader toes, the styles adopted by European women throughoutthe 17th century, tended to favor slimmer heels and pointier toes.
Because everyone knows that super skinny heelsthat squish all of your toes together into an unnatural point are about as comfortableas walking on hot lava.
By the 18th century, heels for men (alongwith other ostentatious forms of clothing such as heavy jewelry, rich fabrics, and brightcolors) went out of fashion in favor of more staid clothing that was more practical forgetting work done… and you know, walking.
During that era in Europe there was also afocus on men’s ability to become equal citizens through rational thinking, which made fancyclothing less appealing.
So, the high heel began to be cast as inherentlyfeminine because it was viewed as impractical.
But heels weren’t always the most popularfootwear and about 50 years after men kicked high heels to the curb, women also startedto eschew the fancy footwear at the end of the French Revolution (and I really hope youappreciate that very “subtle” word play.
) And it wasn’t until the mid 19th centurythat the heel made a comeback for women… but not as general fashion.
The reemergence actually had to do with theinvention of the camera because heels were often used in women’s fashion photography.
But some of those connections were about styleand some were about sexuality.
That’s because, early erotic photographerswere some of the first folks to embrace the reemergence of the heel on women in suggestivephotographs.
And during World War II, we saw a surge inpopularity of the stiletto heel, perhaps because the expansion of steel technology made thespiky shoes a little more stable.
Which is a good thing, since that skinny littlestick has to support the weight of your entire body.
But a bigger part of the popularity of thestilettos in the 40s and 50s, was women’s desire to mirror the fashions of popular wartimepinups.
And if you take a look, you can even see highheels on the side of World War II planes.
So heels for women became coded as attractiveand desirable, even outside of any signifier of class status or the ability to ride a horsewhile shooting a bow and arrow.
And throughout the 20th and 21st century, heels continued to boom in popularity as a sign of poise and feminine charm.
So how does it all add up? Well before they were high fashion, heelshad a pretty practical function for horse riders.
But once they became linked to sexuality andfemininity in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the heel took somethingof a turn.
Now there are studies that suggest that womenwho wear high heels are viewed as more sexually attractive and more powerful in the workplaceby straight men.
But considering that high heels started explicitlyas men’s fashion it’s interesting to question how much of those ideas are culturally codedrationalizations versus objective scientific fact.
But heels can also have a down side, sincewalking on your toes can cause undue stress on the joints and physical discomfort afterwearing them for a long amount of time, especially if your weight isn’t distributed evenlythroughout your foot.
Which is now raising questions about highheels being mandated as a part of work uniforms for women across the country.
And love ‘em or hate ‘em, it looks likeheels are going to be around for a while.
But who knows, maybe they’ll swing backinto fashion for guys.
So what do you think? Anything to add to our history of the heeland its unexpected gender flip? Let us know down in the comments, and if youenjoy Origin of Everything and want to make sure you get it every week, like our Facebookpage or subscribe on Youtube.
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