History of the high heel

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

Over the course of the last hundred years the high heel has been an iconic feminine accessory that’s the must-have staple in any woman’s wardrobe. In any movie where a woman has an intense make over and becomes ‘beautiful again’, one of the things she undoubtedly wears is a stunning pair of 6-inch heels. They have become the main marker of female sexuality, mostly to do with the fact that they shape our legs and butt pretty nicely.

High heels were not always so gendered. There was once a time when heels were commonly worn by men. Shocking, I know. I was shocked too when I came across that little tidbit of information. Probably because it is hard to picture a man wearing any high heel apart from the somewhat elevated heel on dress shoes.

The maybe not-so-humble beginning of the high heel, in particular the wedge heel, can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Father of Greek tragedy’,

By Hayley White

Reading time: 11 minutes

Over the course of the last hundred years the high heel has been an iconic feminine accessory that’s the must-have staple in any woman’s wardrobe. In any movie where a woman has an intense make over and becomes ‘beautiful again’, one of the things she undoubtedly wears is a stunning pair of 6-inch heels. They have become the main marker of female sexuality, mostly to do with the fact that they shape our legs and butt pretty nicely.

High heels were not always so gendered. There was once a time when heels were commonly worn by men. Shocking, I know. I was shocked too when I came across that little tidbit of information. Probably because it is hard to picture a man wearing any high heel apart from the somewhat elevated heel on dress shoes.

The maybe not-so-humble beginning of the high heel, in particular the wedge heel, can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome. The ‘Father of Greek tragedy’, Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) created the first ever high heel when he created a high wedge sole called Korthornos (Corthonus). These platforms were sometimes as high as six inches (15-ish centimetres) and were made for Greek and Roman theatre. Aeschylus wanted to add an air of majesty and swagger to the heroes of his plays so that they could stand out from the less important characters and be easily recognised. So of course, the only way to do this was to make the actors wear high platform sandals to give them extra height to tower over all the other actors. Not to mention that the swagger assumed from trying to walk in platforms was apparently very attractive to the ladies.

Greek women attending the performances soon adopted the same style of shoe and the style quickly spread through the upper tier of Greek society. Some women even took it a step further and they wore cork-soled platforms that reached up to a foot high. And this was not just limited to the Greeks either. The Romans and Egyptians also took on the fashion, first using the platforms as costume until they became standard attire in the upper Roman society as a symbol of social status.

Chopine
Image: Pearson Scott Foresman

This form of shoe carried into many different cultures and was later called a chopine. The chopine was a high platform, clog-like shoe typically made from either cork or wood, worn by Venetian courtesans and women between 1400 to 1700. It was a pedestal with a toe slip to keep the wearer’s shoe on and sometimes reached a maximum of one foot in height. Since women in Venice mostly travelled in gondolas, it meant their chopines could reach heights as high as 30 inches (or over two feet). But as popular as they were, a law in 1430 was decreed stating that pregnant women were not allowed to wear these shoes in case the woman fell and hurt both herself and the baby. Similar stilted wooden sandals were worn in areas of the Middle East, China, and Japan.

Some are of the opinion that the chopine originated in Spain, as can be seen in ‘many extant examples and a great amount of pictorial and written reference’ going as far back as the 14th century (About: Chopine, n.d.). Of course, at the time there were no paved streets, so mud was everywhere. Plus, the filth from everyone’schamber pots being emptied out their windows made for some really disgusting scenery, so the platforms were mostly used as a way for noble ladies to keep their shoes and skirts from getting dirty.

As for how the classic high heels as we know them came along, well, those took root in the horseback-riding peoples of Central and East Asia (DeMello, 2009). Both the Persians and Mongols wore stacked leather heels as part of their riding gear. The arch in the heel was a good way to keep the men’s feet in their stirrups while riding and shooting arrows. Mongolian horseback riders were upper-class members, so the stacked heel was a sign of wealth and status in their culture as well.

The stacked heel was believed to be brought over to Europe by either the Mongol invasions of Central Europe in the 13th century or during the Crusades. Before heels arrived in Europe, people were wearing pointed toe shoes but quickly transitioned into using 1 to 1 ½ inch stacked heels to keep them in stirrups in the 16thcentury, as their Mongolian predecessors did. Not only were high heels a great way to advance their war strategies, but the ideals of wealth and status symbolised by the high heel were adopted and remained an important part of European culture.

Portrait of King Louis XIV of France in his red high heels

In the 17th century, high-born French men quickly took to wearing narrower and higher heels, especially royalty like King Louis XIV. Most heels only reached 4 inches, but King Louis XIV wore 5-inch red heels during his reign – he was apparently just a little bit too short. As the high heel craze took over and lower-class people started to wear heels as well, the higher-class people began requesting even higher heels to separate themselves from the hoi polloi. Once heels started being distributed to commoners as well, the height of a heel started being regulated according to rank: ½ inch for commoners, 1 ½ inch for bourgeois (middle class), 1 1/3inches for knights, 2 inches for nobles, and 2 1/3 inches for princes.

One of the things I find very interesting is the way European culture somehow made sure that there were always ways to differentiate between class and gender. In the 1500s, Catherine de Medici, the Duchess of Orleans, wore high heels to appear taller when she married King Henry II. As the first woman to officially start wearing high heels, they soon spread throughout European courts for both men and women. For a time, men and women wore the same thing, but after a while men’s and women’s heeled shoes were defined by the shape of the actual heel. Women’s shoes had slightly thinner heels than men’s shoes (whose heel was more of a solid block) and were a precursor to the style of heel that has come into fashion today, called a lipstick heel.

Once women started to wear heels, the practice quickly became linked in some form or another to women’s sexuality, and men eventually phased it out of their attire. Victorians held the belief that women were more appealing if they had smaller feet, born from ideals carried over from China. High heels gave the appearance of a smaller foot, so became very popular.

Around that time a variety of laws came into play, especially once high heels became popular in the United States of America. One law stated that women were not allowed to deceive men into thinking they were taller than they really were; and the other law, shown below, stated that if a woman seduced a man using high heels, she would be given the same punishment as a suspected witch:

“All women, whether virgins, maidens, or widows, who shall after this Act impose upon, seduce, or betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s male subjects by virtue of high heel shoes would be subject to the same severe punishment meted out to suspected witches” – 17th Century Massachusetts law (DeMello, 2009).

High heels went out of fashion for a time after the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in the 1800s. When high heels eventually came back into vogue near the end of the 1900s, they became markedly gendered with the highest heel a man would wear being 1 inch.

I do not think there is even one woman, who does not own at least one pair of heels, and there are so many styles now.

There are the wedges that originated in Greece, the common stiletto heels, and there are lipstick heels which are blocky like the ones men wore just before they went out of fashion. All of these heel types originated and grew out of menswear and now, they are a massive symbol of female sexuality. Despite this, I came across a story about Mark Bryan, an American robotics engineer who lives in Germany. He wears high heels and skirts to work every day, he wears them when he goes to town, and he wears them even at home. And he is not alone.

With such a rich history of wearing high heels, it is no surprise that men are trying to bring down those gender restrictions and possibly reclaim what was the height of masculinity all those years ago.

 

Sources: 1. Feet and footwear: A cultural encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. 2. History of Sandals – Shoe styles of Ancient Greece: Kothornos (Corthornus), historyofsandals.blogspot.com 3. About: Chopine, dbpedia.org 4.High heels and evolution: Natural selection, sexual selection, and high heels. Psychology, evolution, and gender, eosmith.com

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