High Heels – Then And Now

That ultimate in female fashion, the high-heel, was once a men’s accessory. And its impracticality for walking has a simple explanation – the original high-heel, for men, wasn’t actually designed for walking in at all!


The Persian Empire (ancient Iran) for centuries excelled at horsemanship, with the Iran-based Parthian cavalry-archers wiping out a Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC and numerous other examples of Persian horsemanship manifesting over the centuries. Heeled shoes have their origin as Persian cavalry footwear, with the heels allowing a rider to stand in his stirrups in order to be able to fire arrows more effectively.


The story of the modern western high-heel truly begins in the late 16th century, when Persian ruler Shah Abbas I sent emissaries to Europe to sound the rulers of Russia, Spain and the German states. He was looking for an alliance between the West and Persia in order to assault the Ottoman Turks, his great Muslim enemy, from both east and west.


The arrival of these emissaries at Western courts stoked a great European interest in Persia, including Persian fashion. Europe’s aristocrats were suddenly enamoured of the Persian-style cavalryman’s heeled shoes, which were felt to be masculine and martial.


Gradually, the lower classes also began to wear heels, and so the aristocracy responded by increasing the size of their own heels to distance themselves from the lower classes. Although these higher-heels were not practical, especially considering the muddy streets of Europe, that was the point: like much aristocratic fashion, part of the appeal to the upper classes was the fact that it illustrated that they did not need utility in their apparel. This was also the concept behind the ermine cloaks of the 18th century and the huge Elizabethan ruff collar.


The first European men’s high-heels were often red as the colour signified wealth due to red dye being expensive. The French, always at the forefront of fashion, were early adopters of the Persian heels, but the custom soon spread to the rest of Europe. And the custom also crossed the genders – women, underrepresented and marginalised, took to masculinising their outfits, and so the high-heel became unisex for a time. (Similarly, at this time, both genders’ dress included jewellery and opulent coats of the sort that would currently be considered feminine.)


Gradually, while both genders continued to wear heels, women’s heels became more tapered to make their feet appear daintier when they appeared from under skirts. But the real change occurred when Enlightenment thinking began to be adopted in Europe. This new intellectual movement emphasised rationality and education rather than birth and privilege, and upper-class men began to abandon the sort of apparel which previously had emphasised their privileged status, such as jewellery and high-heeled shoes. By 1740 this process was complete and men had entirely abandoned any sort of fashion which was seen as foolish and impractical, moving more toward the sort of toned-down clothing still seen on modern men.


However, this focus on education and rationality did not extend to women, who continued to be seen as irrational. Female desirability was seen to be connected with impracticality, and the high-heel continued to be an indicator of impracticality (as it does to this day, in fact).


The women’s heel had actually also fallen out of fashion by about 1790, in part due to new attitudes spawned by the French Revolution, but by about 1850 had re-entered women’s fashion. Similarly, heels re-entered men’s fashion on occasions, notably via cowboy boots and 70s platform shoes, but these have proven largely transitory and the high-heel is very much a female phenomenon and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.