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Tag Archives: shoe history

I don’t know who invented the High Heel, but all women owe him a lot. –Marilyn Monroe

         If you’re a woman in today’s age, chances are you’ve worn a pair of heels—you’ve squeezed your little piggies into tight toe boxes, unnaturally elevated your arch, and felt that ache and pinch of high heels. And if you’re a man, chances are you’ve ogled heel-donning women as they strut (or teeter) by—calves and thighs toned, asses lifted, strides shortened and sexified. The high heel is one of the most controversial and impactful items in fashion and I am here to explore it, its history, and its reputation.

The High and Low of Heels                                                                                                            

          The benefits of wearing these steep shoes are largely aesthetic. Heels give the illusion of longer, leaner legs and smaller, more ‘lady-like’ feet. Much like Chinese foot-binding, Victorian-era corsets, and even African neck-stretching, the goal is to create an exaggerated femininity. Some women claim that once poised atop the spiked shoes, a new identity can emerge—often conveying strength, sexuality, femininity, and confidence. And let’s not forget that the right pair of heels are just divine to look at and can bring an outfit together perfectly.                                       

          On the down side however, many podiatrists claim that wearing heels can be detrimental to the basic anatomy of the feet, knees, and lower back. The negative physical results can include severe pain, foot deformities, and unnecessary stress on the knee joints. Women who wear them frequently enough actually begin to change the arch of their feet, causing pain when sporting other types of shoes.  

          Then there’s the social and sexual stigma tied to the shoes. Opponents of high heels (often feminists) see the discomfort caused by them as punishment, as a form of submission and method of subservience to men. Some even argue that it renders the wearer defenseless against violent attack since it’s so difficult to run in them. Others belief that the choice of shoe perpetuates unhealthy gender roles, further objectifying women and reducing them to sexual objects for the consumption of the male gaze.                                                                      

          Nevertheless, women—and some men—continue to wear them. Fashion trends have varied through the years, but sales of the stately shoes and its many retail relatives (i.e. high heel boots, platforms, heel-less heels, etc.) continue to flourish. Today, heels are seen as a staple in the modern, fashionable woman’s wardrobe. (I recently read an article saying the average North American woman owns at least 30 pairs…. If that’s true, I’ve got some catching up to do!) But how did we get here? Where did these notorious shoes come from?

Walk like an Egyptian…..or a European Aristocrat                                                                                

           The earliest depiction of shoes are found in murals of the Ancient Egyptians from around 3500 BC. During these times, shoes themselves were a privilege of the higher classes, and heeled versions were often worn for ceremonies. Butchers also utilized the stacked shoes to keep them above the blood that accumulated on the ground.                      

          Similar platform sandals, known as kothorni, made their debut on Greco-Roman stages (and brothels) around 200 BC—where varying heights were worn to signify a character’s social standing. Later called pattens in the Middle Ages, these thick, wooden soles were attached to more fragile shoes to protect them from mud. Chopines were also emerging in Turkey, eventually becoming very popular with Venetian women, and commonly showcased heights of six to seven (and up to thirty) inches.                                                                                                                  

          Then, in the 1500s, came a shoe revelation. Cobblers began making them from two pieces: a pliable upper part, which was attached to a heavier, stiffer sole. To address the issue of (then-fashionably-elongated) shoes slipping through stirrups, a one to two inch rider’s heel was developed.                                                                                                                          

          Catherine de Medici is widely regarded as the first wearer of heels as we know them today. In 1533, at the age of 14, her imminent marriage to the Duke of Orleans (who would become the King of France) approached. To compete with the Duke’s much-taller and attractive mistress, Diane de Poitiers, the short-statured, future-Queen donned two-inch heels (rumored to have been created by Leonardo DaVinci) and changed the future of footwear—and fashion—forever. For the next few hundred years, it was common for both men and women to wear heels; and, until the early 1800s, there was no distinction between left and right shoes.                                              

           During the reign of Louis XIV in the early 1700s, intricate heels (known as “Louis heels”) were often decorated with battle scenes and stood some five inches in height. According to the King’s decree, only nobility were allowed to wear them in red, and none shall stand as tall as his own. The Rococo style of court-ordered-ornament and aristocratic-frivolity, embraced the heel, and furthered its reputation as an item of luxury, leisure, and class.                          

The Fall of the Heel                                                                                                                                      

           With the political and social revolution of France in the 1790s, came the (temporary) demise of the high heel. To the oppressed, but strengthened lower-class, the shoe embodied what was wrong with society. In a final, symbolic gesture, Marie Antoinette climbed the scaffold and was beheaded in two-inch heels—which, by this time, had been banished by the Napoleonic Code in an attempt to show equality among the masses. (Ironically, I recently read that Napoleon would have his servants break-in his new shoes for him.)                                                                                    

           Puritan Pilgrims in the new American colonies had passed a similar law prohibiting excessively-tall boots some hundred and fifty years before this. They saw the heeled-shoe as demonic, claiming it akin to the cloven-hoof of the Devil. Ensnaring a man by wearing such heels was enough to charge a woman with witchcraft during this time.  

As the Other Shoe Drops                                                                                                                             

          Flats and sandals dominated shoe trends until the late-1800s, when heels resurfaced in popularity. The invention of the sewing machine brought a greater variety to the styles and materials used by shoemakers, thus further increasing their mass-appeal. And much like the movement of fashion today, America and the rest of the Western world followed the lead of Italian and French designers.                                                                                                                    

          A woman known as Madame Kathy, who owned a famous brothel in New Orleans, is attributed with introducing America to high heels. It is said that, in the 1880s, one of her girls brought a pair from Paris, and after observing their special effects, the Madame doubled her prices. As word spread about the brothel’s sultry shoes, she began shipping them from Europe and selling them to her clients, who gave them as gifts to their wives and girlfriends.                                   

           The twentieth century brought a time of great change, turmoil, and progress—ultimately reflected in shoe and clothing trends. During times of prosperity and growth, such as the Roaring 20s, when spirits (and hemlines) were high, heels were in fashion. However, during the Depression and wartimes, more sensible styles were being worn.                                                              

          Then, in the wake of WWII, came the rebirth of high fashion. To accompany Christian Dior’s post-War collection, renowned shoe designed Roger Vivier created the infamous stiletto heel. Italian for “a small dagger with a slender, tapering blade,” stilettos have a very narrow, tall heel. While this style had been seen before, the technology used to make them sturdy (a thin steel core) was new. The shoes were so sharp, in fact, they were often banned from public building because they damaged the floors.                                                                                                      

          Vivier, who originally studied to be a sculptor and also brought us the Beatle Boot (the Cuban-heel, ankle-boot popularized for menswear in the 1960s), undoubtedly drew inspiration from Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. He had been creating a range of innovative styles throughout the 1930s and designed shoes for legendary Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe.

Today’s Towering Tootsies                                                                                                                         

          It’s been evident through the centuries that as societies shift and change so do their fashions. For example, the 1980s “power suit” was worn by scores of emerging female professionals hoping to legitimize themselves in the male-centric business world. They often paired these ensembles with high heels to not only give their stature added inches, but also to demand authority. For one of the first times, wearing heels was a sign of power and strength, rather than feminine vulnerability and prettiness.                                                                                                

          Today, most third-wave feminists agree that fashion and personal style can be adapted to identify, experiment with, and challenge concepts of femininity and masculinity, sexuality, and control. With prominent designers like Vivian Westwood, Jimmy Choo, and Manolo Blahnik incessantly shaping the shoe world, one thing is for sure— high heels will continue to thrive. Such wildly-expensive designs demand hundreds and even thousands of dollars to purchase. However, many lines have been introduced making heels much more affordable for the average shopper. In fact, accessory-mogul Tamara Mellon has confirmed that a Jimmy Choo collection will be available at modestly-priced H&M stores this November. (Oh, happy day!!)        

          Now I don’t know about any of you, but I just love to look at a beautiful pair of heels. While I may cringe at the thought of wearing them (especially new, un-broken-in ones) for long periods of time; to me, they’re just so damn pretty, sexy, and even badass. The pure aesthetic pleasure (and the knowledge of how it transforms my body, posture, and attitude) makes up for the crammed toes and unsteady step.

          And as far as feeling helpless and vulnerable in them… please! If there’s really someone coming after me, I think I’d take a few seconds to take them off. Then, come to think of it, I’d have two ready-to-use weapons at my disposal. I’m not saying I’ve ever had to use a heel to defend myself; but it’s nice to know they’ve got my back if the situation should arise. Who knows, maybe I’ll even compete (along with hundreds of other women, in many contests across the world) in a stiletto race. Okay…maybe not.  

 If you’re interested in learning more about the history of heels check out some of these websites and books: