Emmie Cosgrove explores the political history of high heels
Watching Cinderella for the first time made heels seem so magical. She gets the life she always dreamed of due to a pair of glass slipper heels. As a child, I believed that when I got my first pair of high heels this too would happen to me, and I strutted around in my plastic princess heels feeling unstoppable.
Growing up, the magic of high heels faded very quickly. They always looked so good on the shop floor, but after walking in them for about five minutes you really do regret your choice of footwear, but sometimes we have to suffer to look stylish. And, heels can be so fun to wear as well. Although many people roll their eyes at high heels and view them as ridiculous and impractical, there is a fascinating political history behind high heels, which starts with them being a very practical item of male clothing.
The origin of high heels can be traced all the way back to 10th Century Iran. Persian soldiers would wear heels whilst riding horseback, as they helped keep their feet secure in the stirrups while they stood up in the saddle to fire their arrows and throw their spears. Iran and Europe had a strong relationship when it came to trade, and by the 16th Century, high heels had made their way to Europe. They became a much-adored style of footwear for men all over Europe. Again, there was initially a practical purpose as the high heel worked as an outer layer to prevent dirt getting on their actual shoes.
Although high heels were, at this stage, a male item of fashion, Italian courtesans began to wear heels to create a sexy androgynous look.
They spent their time pleasing and interacting with men, and one of the benefits of being a courtesan was being allowed things that were strictly for men (ranging from books to fashion items). The heels they wore were called chopines and were definitely impractical – some were up to 10 inches tall, with those wearing them requiring support from their servants or admirers.
Other than courtesans, fashion heels were, at this time, for men only. European aristocrats were particularly fond of high heels. They helped men appear taller, which made them look more domineering, and the richer you were the higher the heel. High heels had become a symbol of wealth, status and masculinity throughout Europe.
One of the most famous historical figures associated with the high heel is King Louis XIV of France. He is a prime example of what heels meant for men of high status (and small stature) during the 17th Century. Countless portraits of him show off his beautiful, lavish heels. He had heels made from materials such as velvet and satin and painted in shades of royal blue and deep red. His love for heels became obsessive as he banned anyone not wearing red heels in his court.
He inspired men around him to dress to his standards and men invested infancy high heels to prove their status and wealth. Louis XIV played a big part in fashion history and inspired one of today’s most renowned shoe designers, Christian Louboutin.
By the late 17th Century women had also started to wear fashion heels, but in the 18th Century, around the time of the French Revolution, the public’s views on heels changed drastically. Men and women alike swapped their heeled shoes for flats, not wanting any type of association with royalty, even down to the clothes they wore. Extravagant fashion became a thing of the past for men. Dressing in a far more tailored way became the trend – something that is still highly popular in men’s fashion today.
However, the 19th Century saw the return of the heel but strictly for women only. In her interview with the She Files, Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, notes that “heels were becoming suspect for men as Enlightenment concepts of male ‘rationality’ posited that… ‘irrational’ things such as high heels were better left to women”. High heels became increasingly seen as hyper-feminine and also started to become linked to female erotica. The pornographic photographers of the 19th Century found that heels made women look sexier, better defining their legs and bums, and thereby leading to more daring, risqué photos.
Due to technological advances around the 1950s, heels could be made thinner and higher, and the stiletto was born. This type of heel became a staple wardrobe piece for many women in the 50s and took over the celebrity world. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, two of the most renowned fashion icons from the 50s, helped define the high heel trend for women, and this is known as the golden age of high heels, not just for women in Europe but all over the world. The popularity of the high heel among women in the 50s carried the trend into today’s world.
In the 1970s women grew tired of dressing to please men and, with second wave feminism, the high heel suffered as women increasingly turned against these impractical shoes. However, in the 80s celebrities like Madonna began wearing high heels as a fashion statement, rather than just to look good for men. This brought heels back into fashion, and the range of high heeled shoes widened. As well as the high-femme look of 50s stiletto heels, platform and chunky heeled boots appeared with celebrities like Freddie Mercury from Queen giving these a cool, rock and roll, edgy feel.
From practical footwear to impractical fashion items, worn first by men and then by women, going in and out of fashion but never quite disappearing, high heels remain with us today. For now, the connections between feminity, irrationality and fashion established in the 18th century still remain strongly connected to high heels. However, the fashion industry is seeing the rise of gender fluidity and the way people dress is changing.
With more people experimenting with dressing outside of gender norms, in the future the high heel could again become a shoe for both men and women. With the variety of heel styles available to us today, whether you want to go for a classic feminine look inspired by the likes of Audrey Hepburn or Marilyn Monroe, or would rather go for a more androgynous look to give you a few extra inches of height, high heels are available to fit your personal taste.
They may hurt our feet, but they sure do look good. And boy, do these shoes know how to survive the test of times!
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