The history of high heels

Jenessa Williams

We may not be wearing them very much at the moment, but the story behind our most glamorous pair of high heels is likely much longer than any of us really realise...

From Louis XIV to Carrie Bradshaw, here is the tale of how a very male shoe came to become an iconic symbol of powerful femininity.

 

15th Century—17th Century high heels

Originally dating back to 15th century Persia, the very first high heels were made for highly practical purpose. An early precursor of the cowboy boot style, a sturdy shoe with in-built heeled sole allowed horsemen to more easily secure their feet in stirrups, creating a much more comfortable ride. 

Owning horses meant wealth, and so owning a pair of proper riding boots was a real symbol of power and influence. As soldiers began to travel on Persian Shah orders to forge a relationship with other influential foreign leaders, word of heeled boot spread across Europe, and they became the covetable look for both sport and leisure, teamed with tight stockings and britches that could emphasise a taught calf and thigh. 

Meanwhile, the platform style of the “Chopine” is thought to have originated amongst sex workers of Venice looking for an extra height boost, but quickly became adopted by aristocracy as an outdoor shoe that would allow them significant separation between the hem of their lavish outfits and the dirty street below. 

One of high heels earliest adopters in Europe was Louis XIV. A famously short man, he adored the style, and had them crafted specifically out of lavish velvets and silks to match his formal dress. In 1670, he even went as far as to pass a mandate that only nobility could wear heels, reserving them as the domain of the privileged. He particularly favoured heels with red sole—a symbolic colour of passion and dominance. This choice would become highly symbolic for French designer Christian Louboutin later down the line…

By the mid 18th century, the male interest in heels had waned, mostly due to their increasing feminisation. Though women such as Queen Elizabeth I had first adopted heels in order to ape some of the authority of their male counterparts, women’s shoes had become significantly more decorative thanks to the launch of the sewing machine, which allowed for much greater customisation in the affixation of sole and upper. 

The 18th century is also when high heels first began to have “sexy” connotations —in early French postcard pornography from this era, women were often scantily-clad save for an elegant pair of heels, cementing the erotic fantasy that would lead seamlessly into the glamour girls of Second World War paraphernalia. 

 

20th Century high heels

While Cuban heels were still very much the choice of frontier cowboys and the working lumberman, heels had pretty much otherwise become the exclusive domain of women by the 20th century. 

Dorothy’s ruby slippers, brought to technicolour life in 1939’s The Wizard Of Oz, captured people’s imaginations, and a whole wealth of delicate, feminine dancing styles followed—fragile slippers with silk ribbons, T-bar black patent heels, scoop-fronted buckle boots. 

The 1940s favoured the first wedge styles, while the technological advancements of the 1950s were all about making things thinner and higher. The stiletto was invented by Roger Vivier, a shoe designer for the house of Christian Dior, who named the style for it’s resemblance to the thin dagger of the same name, symbiotic with the rise of Hollywood and the glamour of both Marilyn Monroe starlets and cowboy-western leading men. 

The feminist movement of 60s and 70s meant that women were enticed more towards styles that offered style AND practicality: the knee-high boot, a chunky platform, and the huge success of the classic Mary Jane—a simple leather shoe with a manageable two-inch heel. Higher, more outlandish heels became the domain of both discos and drag queens, much more of a costume than an everyday staple.   

Thanks to the global success of the Beatles and their modernisation of both Cuban heels and Chelsea boots, the lines of gender once again began to blur. David Bowie was the ambassador of androgynous platform boots and vibrant stilettos, while glam-rock acts such as Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Kiss all payed homage to the pointed boot as a symbol of wild-west masculinity, often clad in outlandish patterns, studs and spurs. 

 

Late 20th-21st Century high heels

The “power dressing” craze of the 1980s put stilettos back on the map. Teamed with a large-lapelled suit or a shoulder-pad dress, they were a sign that “boss mode” could be fully engaged without giving up the playfulness of the rhinestone diamante clip or pastel-hued slingbacks that had been so much fun in the 50s. If they perfectly matched the exact shade of your outfit, all the better. 

With the 90s success of the Little Black Dress, heels remained a staple way to spark up an otherwise minimal outfit. Whether you were a sophisticated supermodel in barely-there strappy sandals or a youthful spice girl pulling on her clumpy Union Jack boots, heels were a rite of passage across subcultures, a way to mark the change from girlhood to adolescence. 

With Carrie Bradshaw’s obsession with skyscraper heels in Sex & the City, the highest of heels had once again made them a staple of the successful working girls wardrobe, a covetable mark of luxury. Knowing your Manolo’s from your Madden’s meant that you were fashion with a capital F, and Hollywood’s growing strata of paparazzi-debutantes delivered no end of passing fads: pointy heels worn with jeans, square toed sandals in neon patent, and of course the chunky wooden clogs that define the boho trend. 

 

High heels in the Noughties onwards

With the staples styles of heel not having changed that much, the noughties and 10’s have become much more about the rise of the covetable designer. Inspired by Louis XIV all those years ago, a red-soled Louboutin has become synonymous with a timeless fashion look, while the more outlandish Alexander Wang Armadillo shoes were instrumental to the 2010 silhouettes of Lady Gaga’s breakthrough. From Jeffrey Campbell’s Lita boots to LK Bennett’s nude heel (championed by Kate Middleton), our favourite must-have heel seems to change significantly year on year, often tethered to some kind of celebrity endorsement. 

However, it is clear that heels may no longer sit on as lofty a perch as they did in previous centuries. In 2016, yearly sales of women’s trainers outstripped that of heels for the first time, and four years prior, Isabel Marant’s wedge sneakers had become an essential of both off-duty Hollywood and blogger street style, building in some much needed back support. 

While there will always be a place for a Valentino Rockstud or a Perspex naked sandal on a big night out, power dressing has become much more about attitude than it is about status. 

While heels might have started with the wealthy, their practical applications may have helped us all to grow a little bit taller in our own right.  

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