The history of heels is steeped in romance, pornography and masculinity, a far cry from its perception in its modern day version, reveals a website.
There is an interesting site called todayifoundout.com where one episode is devoted to the origin of high heels. Would you believe that high heels came into fashion circles because they helped boost the male ego?
The podcast says, “The first high heel wearers are believed to have been Persian horseback warriors some time around the ninth century. The extended heel was reportedly developed specifically for riding, to keep the rider’s foot from slipping out of the stirrups. It also helped to hold the rider steady when standing up in the stirrups and shooting arrows.” The story turns romantic when Western Europe aristocrats were so charmed by their Persian visitors that they tried to copy them. Story goes that Persian diplomats rode into Europe to recruit allies to help Persia defeat the Ottoman Empire. Persians were obviously very artistic people and their manner of dressing, particularly their high heeled shoes impressed the European aristocracy which immediately copied the idea. This was in the year 1599.
With European aristocracy going in for high heeled shoes, it became a status symbol and only men belonging to the wealthy and royal families wore heels. So we have the expression, “well heeled”. The man in power — according to the podcast the average height of men those dayswas 5 ft 5 inch found wearing heels made him look also powerful. At that time ruled Louis XIV of France who was slightly shorter than the average height and he took to heels like it was the answer from heaven. He could finally “tower” over the common man and he went one step further. He got all his shoes decorated with elaborate battle scenes.
The podcast continues, “Eventually he switched to having red heels on all his shoes and decreed that only upper echelons of society could have matching red heels. It became a simple matter of looking at the colour of a man’s heels to see if he was in the king’s inner circle.”
Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata shoe Museum says that unisex dressing has its history in those times when women started dressing like men. “The rage of that period in parts of Europe was for women to dress and act like a man. You had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits. They would smoke pipes, wear hats that were very masculine and this is why women adopted the heel…it was an effort to masculinise their outfits.”
“As usually happens,” says the podcast,” high fashion is adapted into more affordable versions and filters down to the less fortunate. The lower classes started to wear high heels. The elite responded by making their heels higher to maintain the distinction of being upper class…the higher the heel, the more expensive the shoe typically was. They also began to differentiate heels into two kinds: fat heels for men and skinny for women.
In the late 18th century, men stopped “dressing themselves up” All forms of jewellery was eschewed in this period of the “Great Male Renunciation” and the heel also fell into disuse by men. It became a part of the women’s wardrobe only. When men stopped using it, the women no longer faced the pressure to match up and so they also gave up wearing high heels. It was anyway quite a bother to walk on cobblestone styled streets or along muddy paths. “They were not gone long though. The heels came back into fashion in the mid 19th century with the advent of photography,” continues the podcast saying that this renewal was brought about by the most unlikely source: pornography.
On reflection, it may not be so unlikely a source because shoes continued to be associated with romance, according to Semmelhack who says this association is thanks to Cinderella. Pornographers portrayed a world sans all problems but only romance and so they had models wearing nothing but the “modern” high heeled! That brought the heel to stay. With some periods of lows (in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s lower heels were preferred) and some highs (in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s higher heels came into vogue), the heels are living on as an essential fashion accessory.