You could be forgiven for thinking that high heeled shoes were constructed purely to torture women into feeling as if their toes had fallen off by the end of a night out, right? Wrong. They've got a long, storied, and pretty weird history going back thousands of years, incorporating religious ceremonies, prostitution, decadent kings, gender-bending fashionistas, and child brides. And what's more, high heels weren't originally intended for women at all. It turns out that, when it comes to heels, we're actually the late adopters: the real fashionistas on the heel front were men.
If you've ever gone to a shoe exhibition at a museum, you'll likely have viewed parts of it with your toes cramping in anxiety. Why would people put themselves through such torture on the body parts they walk on every day? The answer, usually, has to do with a mix of power, status, beauty, and sex. We didn't get into heels as a species because somebody wanted to feel more comfortable. We wore them (and continue to wear them) to look taller, more elegant, more sexual, tower over our rivals, be the most prominent person onstage, and generally dominate the room. When you stride into a bar in your 5-inch heels you're part of a very long tradition, with some admittedly very peculiar elements.
The rise of the platform heel from the '70s in today's fashion may seem to signal that we're tired of bending our feet out of shape, but all it shows is that we're temporarily tired of leaning all our weight on our toes. Many of us still want that height, that boost, that sashay. And why wouldn't we? After all, everybody from the Persian Emperor to Louis XIV of France had something to say on the topic of heels. While we can't all be like Imelda Marcos, who famously collected up to 3,000 pairs of heels, we can still look at our treasured few and think of how far they've come. Before taking them off and putting on our slippers, that is.
Ancient TImes: Heels For Actors
The idea of a high heel or platform shoe is actually a seriously ancient one. One of the first traced high-level pieces of footwear in history belonged to actors in ancient Greece, and were known as kothorni. They were flat shoes with wooden or cork bases up to four inches thick. However, these weren't necessarily worn offstage; they were actually meant as a kind of shorthand about the social class of various characters in Greek drama and comedy. The higher the heel, the more "elevated" the character.
Medieval Persia: The Trend Catches On
One of the most convincing theories about how the high heel took over the world comes from shoe expert and academic Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Canada. Her thinking? Persian riding shoes were the real source of the first trend.
1400s: Heels For Women Emerge
The idea of the heel actually being a "female" notion took a very long time to develop. One of the places where it took hold, however, was in Venice in the 1400s. But these weren't heels that you'd like to wear clubbing these days. Chopines, as they're called, were staggeringly high, slightly-tilted shoes with as many as 24 inches of narrowed platform underneath. They were originally designed to keep the mud off the more delicate "real" shoes of ladies walking in the street, often made of easily-stained material like animal skin or satin, but they developed into decorative symbols all of their own, and a Europe-wide trend.
The Renaissance: Gender-Bending Women
The idea of the low sole and high heel as an option for women seems to have made its debut on a fairly spectacular public occasion: a royal wedding. When Catherine de Medici married the Duke of Orleans in 1533, the 14-year-old bride apparently wore towering heels to look slightly more like an adult, instead of chopines or flats. The then gender-bending move made a splash, and the door opened to women wearing more typical "riding heels".
It also seems to have been part of a general trend of more androgynous fashion. Being "masculine" took hold as a real fashion trend in the 1630s, with European women smoking pipes and generally behaving like young dudes. And the male heel was part of that movement.
The Baroque Period: All About Aristocratic Male Heels
The Persian shoes presented by the Shah were definitely only for men. And it was European royal men who really took them and ran with them. (So to speak.)
The Victorian Era: Just For Ladies (And Porn)
The high heel went through a serious fall in fortunes after the French Revolution, when people wanted nothing to do with looking like aristocrats (who were pretty unpopular). And the New World wasn't fond of them either; Massachusetts Puritans banned high heels outright, thinking they were seductive and possible instruments of witchcraft. But they would bounce back.
World War II: The First Stiletto
Pornography (and its more innocent cousin, pin-up photography) is commonly credited with making the high heel a popular, fetishised object, particularly during World War II, when men had photographs of girls in heels pinned up all over the battle-grounds of Europe. Helen Fisher, a famous sex anthropologist, has pointed out that this was the bit of history where we really discovered the sexual pose heels created. "High heels thrust out the buttocks and arch the back into a natural mammalian courting — actually, copulatory — pose called ‘lordosis,'" she told Today in 2009. The seriously high heel had arrived.
The Modern Heel
The heel made a splash in 2015 when the Cannes Film Festival reportedly banned women from wearing anything other than towering heels on the red carpet. It rightly caused a lot of controversy: does the heel have a stranglehold over female glamour? The real mania over heels, partially fueled by the Manolo-obsessed Carrie Bradshaw character on Sex And The City in the 2000s, may have begun to dampen slightly. Health fears about the dangers of heels, which draw reports of damage to ankles, bones, muscles, and general balance, have given women reason to think twice before reaching for the 6-inch stilettos.