Today, high heels are synonymous with female fashion and sexuality, so it is probably a surprise to many that they were originally worn by men! In fact, high heels were not considered as footwear for women until the late 19th century, being worn almost exclusively by men for centuries!
Furthermore, it was not until the 1950s that the modern style of high heels we know and love today were released, highlighting the surprisingly unique story of how this footwear would become a mainstay in women’s fashion.
Let’s take a brief look at the history of high heels!
The First High Heels Date to 10th Century Persia
The first known evidence of high heels dates to 10th century Persia (current day Iran). These heels did not resemble the footwear we recognize today, instead resembling a boot with small heels no larger than one inch.
These heels were not a fashion statement either - they were used by the Persian cavalry.
That’s right, the first documented use of high heels was male calvary in the Persian army!
The heels help to keep the horse rider’s feet in the stirrup as they galloped, allowing calvary archers to maintain their position on the horse as they fired at their enemy. Persian riders were also wealthy and affluent, causing the footwear to become a status of wealth in subsequent centuries.
Heels Spread to Europe in the 16th Century
As Persia shared strong trade links with Europe, high heels began to become popular in the region by the 16th century. By this time, the heels were less about functional military footwear, instead becoming the fashion-focused footwear we know today.
Moving into the 17th century, high heels were now a fashion staple, although they were still worn exclusively by men.
High heeled footwear was popular amongst European aristocrats as they helped to emphasize the legs, highlighting the calves and thighs in what was deemed a very masculine aesthetic. Heels also helped men to appear much taller, further improving perceptions of masculinity.
Moreover, heels were still a symbol of wealth and power, cementing their popularity amongst the affluent aristocrats.
King Louis XIV Loved His High Heels
Perhaps the most prominent lover of high heels in the 17th century was none other than Louis XIV, then King of France. Louis adored his heels, introducing red colored heels to court, leading this particular style to be most associated with status and power.
Basically, the redder and higher the heel, the more impressive you were!
Interestingly, he was such fan of high heels that he decided that they could only be worn by nobility. If you flaunted a pair of red high heels during this period, people would immediately know how wealthy and powerful you were!
Heels Become More Gendered between the 18th and 19th Century
You may have noticed that we are several centuries into the history of heels and have yet to mention them being worn by women. This is because it wasn’t until the 18th century that they became more gendered.
Changing mindsets, fuelled in part by the Enlightenment movement of the time, saw men’s fashion focus less on style and luxury. It was all about simplicity and practicality, with heels viewed as too lavish and opulent for men, being replaced by flat-footed shoes still common today.
By the 19th century, high heels were now almost exclusively worn by women. Over time, they would become more associated with femininity, becoming a staple in erotic female photography that was emerging during the period.
20th Century Heels - The Birth of the Modern Fashion Icon
High heels cemented their status as a female footwear by the mid-20th century thanks to several film stars of the time. Classical Hollywood actresses and beauty icons such as Marylin Monroe and Audrey Hepburn helped to revitalise their popularity as a female fashion item, which had become less popular due to the economic fallout of the Great Depression followed by both World Wars.
Come the 1950s, heels were now back in fashion, with iconic film stars of the era donning the latest styles of heel. At the forefront of this was the stiletto, a pointy-toed, narrow heel developed by a collaboration between designers Christian Dior and Roger Vivier.
This slimmer heel providing an alluring appearance on the wearer so was favoured by many Hollywood starlets, causing a huge surge in popularity during the 1960s.
In the following decades, more styles of heels were developed such as wedges, blocks, pumps and more. All major fashion brands, from Gucci to Prada to Jimmy Choo have developed iconic styles of high heels, while you can find heels of varying sizes in virtually any footwear store in the country.
Modern female fashion is dominated by the high heel, so it is always interesting to see how much of a unique and storied history the footwear has!