High heels, though a staple of nearly every woman’s closet these days, aren’t exactly the most reasonably designed footwear. We wobble and slip and turn our ankles on every uneven stone, but refuse to trade them in for more sensible flats and sneakers. Where did these impractical shoes come from?
As discussed in a recent episode of BBC’s The Why Factor, high heels point back to an unlikely source: men. For centuries, high heels were worn as a form of riding footwear,according to Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The heel helped a rider secure his stance in the stirrups so he could shoot arrows more effectively; this was useful particularly in Persia (modern-day Iran), where the fighting style relied a great deal on good horsemanship.
17th century Persian shoes, made from horsehide and pressed mustard seeds. Image courtesy The Star/Bata Shoe Museum.
In 1599, the Persian shah sent a diplomatic mission to Europe, and an interest in Persian culture and fashion swept Western Europe. Aristocrats took a liking to Persian high-heeled shoes—they were bold, masculine, and perfect for asserting status. When the lower classes caught on and adopted the shoes, the aristocracy simply increased the height of their footwear, in accordance with the social order. They were useless on the cobbled streets of 17th Century Europe, but that was the whole appeal: Privileged men rarely walked anywhere, and ridiculous accessories highlighted their luxurious lifestyles.
Christian Louboutin wasn’t the first to use red soles as a status symbol, either: Louis XIV, King of France, beat him to it by over three centuries. At only 5 feet 4 inches, or 1.63 meters, the monarch boosted his stature with heels—always red, an expensive dye. In the 1670s, Louis XIV issued an edict limiting red heels to members of his court; only the favored few could wear this ostentatious color.
A 1701 portrait of Louis XIV, wearing his trademark red heels. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
How, then, did high heels become part of women’s fashion? Semmelhack offered an explanation to William Kremer of BBC News Magazine:
"In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits. They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel - it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits."
Eventually, though, the unisex heel branched into a low, stacked heel for men and a slender heel for women, and when the Enlightenment rolled around, men’s dress became more sensible and understated. The distinction between classes was vanishing, and women—seen as silly, vapid, and overly sentimental—became the curators of the high heel and other pretentious, impractical fashions. By 1740, men stopped wearing high heels entirely.
Once functioning as sensible footwear for horseback riding, high heels evolved into stilettos and pumps, impractical but irresistible signifiers of femininity and wealth. Fashion is cyclical, though, and perhaps someday they will be seen as symbols of power and status—and maybe men will reclaim the shoe that they created.