“Should I wear heels or not?”
This is a common dilemma many women face whenever they go out. They want to look taller and more sophisticated, but at the same time, they want to be comfortable and be able to feel their feet at the end of the night. Heels are pretty glamorous, but at the same time, they can be painstakingly torturous.
While it has become a fashion statement for women, high heels weren’t even originally invented for them. Believe it or not, the high heel trend started with men. So how come? Here’s a back story for you:
One of the first elevated pieces of footwear in history belongs to the actors in ancient Greece. It was called kothorni, and was basically flat shoes with cork or wooden bases that is up to four inches thick. It’s much like a platform, actually. It was meant to indicate the social class of the different characters in Greek drama and comedy. The higher the heel, the more important the character.
There is also an evidence that the ancient Egyptians wore heels. Most of the ancient Egyptian lower class walk barefoot, but figures on murals dating from 3,500 B.C. depict an early version of heels (again, they’re basically like high platforms) worn mostly by people of upper-class males and females. They wore it for religious ceremonies for an unknown reason – maybe the higher heels, the closer they are to the Egyptian gods above? Egyptian butchers are also historically known to wear heels, so they could avoid coming into contact with the bloody carcasses.
In Rome, heels are associated with prostitution. Sex slaves and prostitutes are readily identified by their high heels.
During ancient times, heels were generally worn for a special purpose.
During the 10th century, many noblemen of the medieval Persian cavalry wore a type of boots with heels. These are considered their riding shoes that enable their feet will stay on the stirrups. Also, heels kept arrow-shooting riders to stand up safely on their galloping horses. This was when the first high heel trend originated, as “heels” in the ancient times are basically just elevated footwear. Back them, owning horses was expensive, so wearing heels would also show the high social status of the wearer.
Generally, both men and women in the Middle Ages wore platform shoes called pattens, which are wooden soles attached to the shoes to raise themselves out of the mud and other “debris” when walking on the streets.
When the Persians came to tour European courts and make friends with the nobility, European male elites became eager to adopt their footwear. Even non-horse riders adopted the shoes, because not only did the shoes help in warfare – they were also very practical since they are less likely to step in grime. They also liked that the heels make them taller, therefore making them look more daunting. Thus, the heel became a symbol of powerful masculinity.
In Turkey, chopines, or platform shoes were created during the 1400s. It was like pattens, which were overshoes, but chopines were designed specifically for women. Chopines literally took them to new heights, as they could be seven to 30 inches high! Originally, they were made to keep mud off the delicate “real” shoes of women when walking in the street. It became popular throughout Europe until the mid-1600s.
It was the Venetians who made chopine a status symbol to show off wealth. Because of the ridiculously high heels, they need servants or canes to help them to walk. Tourists in Venice often remarked humorously on the chopines.
The 1500s to 1700s
Shoes started to be made in two pieces during the 1500s. That time, footwear was finally made with a flexible upper part, and a stiffer sole, making the heel an actual part of the shoe itself rather than an attachment.
The idea of modern heels (low sole and high heels) began as an option for women during a royal wedding. When 14-year-old Catherine de Medici married the Duke of Orleans in 1533, the short-statured bride wore two-inch heels (instead of chopines or flats) that made her look more like an adult as she walks. This occasion opened the door to women wearing high heels for fashion.
Heels continued to be popular during the 16th century especially for horse riders, both male and female. Riders’ boots back then resemble the modern cowboy boots. Heels became a gender-bender, as the originally androgynous fashion was adopted by more women, who also started smoking pipes and behaving like young men. The “male” heels was a big part of that movement. By 1580, fashionable heels were popular for both male and female, and a person who had wealth was considered to be “well-heeled.”
During the early 1700s, King Louis XIV of France decreed that only nobility should wear heels that were colored red, and that nobody’s heels must be higher than his. Can you believe that a king actually ordered that? Men wore heels to show their upper-class status since they are the only people who can afford such extravagant shoes. As women from the elite also jumped in the trend, the width of heels evolved. Thick heels became popular for men, while slender ones were for women. Like the corset, high heels sculpted the women’s body to make it look more refined, aristocratic and desirable.
During the Enlightenment, men gradually stopped wearing heels because of natural, scientific and logical ideologies that spread on many European societies. This started the era where heels became more associated with women’s sense of extravagance.
By 1810, heels went out of fashion. It disappeared with the French revolution as democracy rose and it seemed unfashionable to suggest division in social class. Napoleon also ordered to banish it to show equality. People that time wanted nothing to do with looking like the snobbish aristocrats. The Puritans of the New World also wasn’t fond of the heels: the Massachusetts Colony even banned high heels for women, because of its seductive and sexual nature, and because they are considered possible instruments for witchcraft. But after around 50 years, the heels would make a big comeback.
It was also during the 1800s when men began to abandon heels. At that time, women’s heels became more associated with its erotic and feminine attributes, as arched foot and curved heel became desirable in a noblewoman’s body. The Victorian era came and ushered new sewing technologies that redesigned the heeled shoe to showcase a woman’s femininity and refinement. It was also the era when erotic photography emerged, and the first nude models always wore high heels. At that point, heels became a woman’s shoe, associated with women’s sexuality and impracticality.
During the Victorian era in the 1860s, the once out-of-fashion shoe was in trend again. Some wearers became comfortable in five to six-inch heels. America finally caught up with the European shoe fashion, and established its first heel factory in New York in 1888. Over the next decades, the impracticality of heels did not upset its popularity, but it became rather a more acceptable symbol of class and social status – because one of the best ways to display status is through impracticality.
The 20th century bought a lot of development to the high heel fashion. During the early 1900s, more comfortable, lower and wider heels became popular. Pumps were designed with cutouts or ankle straps combined with a peep toe to make heels practical and also suitable for professional environments. Then, Hollywood brought a new elegant look for heels as white and glittery shoes became a trend.
World War II started the popularization of pin-up photography, wherein photographs of attractive women wearing high heels are often hang up in the soldier’s bunks. High heels became a fetishized object, strengthening the association of high heels with female sexuality.
The first stiletto heel was designed in 1954 by French designers Christian Dior and Roger Vivier. Stilleto came from the Italian word for a small dagger with a slender blade. Old Hollywood stars and pin-up models donned the stiletto heel in red carpets and pictorials, making it a totem of femininity. Rumor has it that Marilyn Monroe had one heel on her stilettos made slightly shorter than the other so she’d walk with a seductive wiggle on her hips. Since then up to now, women in show business complete their glamorous attire with high heels.
When the miniskirt was invented in the early 1960s, stilettos were attached to boots to enhance the look of the legs. But when the feminist movement during this decade gained momentum, high heels were considered a tool for binding, crippling and sexually stereotyping women. Consequently, lower-heeled shoes with square toes replaced the stiletto. The 1960s also saw the advent of the “kitten heel,” which are meant for women to do household chores more comfortably while wearing heels.
The 1970s were a time of experimentation in fashion, and much of the West embraced the hippie culture. This decade saw the re-emergence of the platform heels (but this time, in psychedelic colors and swirls), as men and women would prefer to dress to shock people.
Higher heels and stilettos saw a resurgence during the 1980s to 1990s as a feminist statement of power and liberation of women’s desires. The “sexy” shoes were not anymore oppressive, but the women’s embracement of their sexuality became more widely accepted. Western women collectively claim that they wore high heels not to impress or attract men, but to empower themselves by a sense of confidence (due to taller height), power and authority. Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, and Jimmy Choo heels became a profitable trend during these decades.
By the late 1990s, high heels saw a decline again due to the hippie revival that highlighted comfort over fashion.
Women now have more shoe choices than ever before. A broad variety of styles ranging from the width of the heel, height to the design and color of shoes has emerged. Heel-less high heels emerged in 2006, which seemingly defies gravity. Hidden heels in casual boots and sneakers became popular. Hybrid shoes like “heeled” athletic shoes, casual sneakers and flip-flops are now available.
Hit TV shows and films like Sex in the City and The Devil Wears Prada have influenced a lot of women to embrace heels as an appealing part of an outfit. Carrie Bradshaw became a fashion icon because her love of shoes and tasteful sartorial choices seem to symbolize the woman’s financial and sexual freedom today.
Heels are certainly fashionable if you pair it with any kind of clothes. You can go for a semi-formal or casual look when you pair it with jeans or a button-down blouse, or you can look formal with a dress or a pants suit. Also, wearing heels has been a norm for women in the professional workplaces, giving a look of power and stature while embracing femininity.
Heels had a lot of ups and downs throughout history, but what is certain is that heels did not go out of fashion, and it’s here to stay. Through the years, high heels have always been a part of a glamorous outfit, and makes a simple ensemble of clothing stand out. No matter what clothes you pick, high heels can surely make you feel sexier, confident and glamorous.