Most high heel aficionados are familiar with the feeling when, at the end of a long night, you wince at your pinched toes and aching ankles and seethe with envy at our male companion’s comfy loafers (or, worse, sneakers!).
Once upon a time, however, it was the men who used their footwear to add inches and proclaim their status. The BBC has just published a fascinating account of the gendered history of the style, dating back to the 16th century, when Persian horseman used heels to grip their stirrups during battle. The craze blossomed in Europe shortly thereafter, and throughout the 17th century high heels played an important role in the attire of the upper classes:
In the muddy, rutted streets of 17th Century Europe, these new shoes had no utility value whatsoever – but that was the point.
“One of the best ways that status can be conveyed is through impracticality,” says [Bata Shoe Museum senior curator Elizabeth] Semmelhack, adding that the upper classes have always used impractical, uncomfortable and luxurious clothing to announce their privileged status.
No, the shoes of the 17th century didn’t compare to some of the pin-thin feats of stiletto engineering we see today, but 4-inch stacked heels weren’t uncommon, especially among the court of Louis XIV. The king dyed the soles and heels of his own pairs red to signify war and power, and, in 1670, issued an edict declaring that only members of his court could do the same. If you’re drawing comparisons to the Christian Louboutin vs. Yves Saint Laurent legal drama, you definitely aren’t alone.
Around 1630, women followed suit, incorporating heels into their wardrobes of petticoated gowns and ruffs “in an effort to masculinise their outfits.” While heel heights remained relatively the same for decades, in the late 17th century, the Enlightenment brought about a move towards grounded, utilitarian style:
It was the beginning of what has been called the Great Male Renunciation, which would see men abandon the wearing of jewellery, bright colours and ostentatious fabrics in favour of a dark, more sober, and homogeneous look. Men’s clothing no longer operated so clearly as a signifier of social class, but while these boundaries were being blurred, the differences between the sexes became more pronounced.
The piece does offer the prediction that this may again change, however: “If it becomes a signifier of actual power, then men will be as willing to wear it as women.”