A Brief History of Walking on Our Toes

The high heel both epitomises the female empowerment and places women in rigid boxes of social expectations. We share the brief history of how heels have become weighted not just with the wearer’s body weight, but with a profound cultural meaning.

Take a moment to imagine the rhythmic, resonant clink of a high heeled strut, headed towards you. Chances are, you’re imagining a woman: a model, a business person, perhaps a flight attendant headed to her gate? As a fashion piece, the high heel is loaded with centuries of history, tied in military inventions, pornography, self-indulgent royalty and underage marriages; and as a sign, with symbolism — that of power, status, beauty, and sex. What it is also loaded with, however, is the entire body weight of the wearer: precisely how a physically excruciating practice of balancing at the balls of one’s feet came to signify the female empowerment, yet simultaneously put women in stiff boxes of gender performativity, isn’t all that clear — especially since heels weren’t even created for women to start with.

Indeed, heels were initiated by men, and for men: according to Elizabeth Semmelhack, an academic and Bata Shoe Museum curator, we owe the trend to the Persian cavalry, who made heeled shoes in the early 10th century to help them stay firmly secured in the stirrups. They have remained the invention’s sole adopters until 1500s, when the Persian monarch, Shah Abbas, came to European royal palaces with a friendly visit. Impressing the nobles with the entourage of his ornate, brightly coloured heeled shoes, he swiftly passed the trend onto Europe’s upper class. It is from there that women first began to appropriate heels: upon marrying the Duke of Orléans, 14-year-old Catherine de’Medici wore raised shoes — the first real prototype of the modern heel — to mask her lucid girlhood, opening the gates to gender-bending experimentation. It’d still take almost two hundred years, however, for heels to become tied in with gender.

Persian cavalry shoe arrived to Europe with Shah Abbas.

Persian cavalry shoe arrived to Europe with Shah Abbas.

Catherine de’Medici, 14 years old at the time of her wedding day, wore high heels to appear taller.

Catherine de’Medici, 14 years old at the time of her wedding day, wore high heels to appear taller.

Catherine de’Medici was among the first female heel pioneers that we know of.

Catherine de’Medici was among the first female heel pioneers that we know of.

Take the most fervid fashion connoisseur amidst the European royalty, Louis XIV of France, for example: in securing the small, broad heel as his wardrobe staple, he remained the very pillar of heteronormative masculinity; nothing effeminate about him. No stranger to making style-related orders to members of his lavish Palace of Versailles, he spread the love of dazzling heels to all nobility, imposing an obligatory red-coloured sole — the exact historic nod of modern-day Louboutin’s stilettos. From there on, heels gradually went their separate gendered ways: female high heel began to thin out, prompting the familiar focus on femininity and fragility to take shape, whilst male heel remained sturdy and stable — which, nonetheless, didn’t help it get signed off as impractical, thus relegating to the dustbin of history. By the 18th century, the high heel was strictly a female shoe.

Louis XIV, the Roi Soleil, ordered everyone at Versailles to wear heels with a red-coloured sole — and it’s no coincidence that modern Louboutin stilettos have red bottoms, too.

Louis XIV, the Roi Soleil, ordered everyone at Versailles to wear heels with a red-coloured sole — and it’s no coincidence that modern Louboutin stilettos have red bottoms, too.

With the French revolution came the detestation of all things royal, for people wanted the aristocrats’ decadent style out of their sight, putting high heels in obsolete misery until the invention of the camera. Flourishing photography brought about pornography, and that is where our modern sex charged symbolism of a high heel really prospered: in using the heel to add flow to the static posing of the ‘French postcards’, the halo of adult material at the time, pornography embraced the fashion object… before fashion did. Upon the end of WW2, where pinup cards did their bit in growing the sexual allure of the arched female foot, stiletto was invented by a Christian Dior’s design engineer to bring fashion in line with male fantasies. From there, the high heels really went downhill. (Figuratively speaking.)

The so-called ‘French postcards’ might seem innocent to our desensitised selves, but way back then were the pinnacle of erotica and perversion. And — you guessed it — most had heels present in them.

The Hollywood had taken stiletto as a serious sign of femininity and desire, fuelling the heel mania through the likes of Marilyn Monroe in the 50’s, all the way to Carrie Bradshaw character in the naughties. These women became the embodiment canonic pretence, romanticising heels: the delicately curved calve, the prominent arch in the back, and the cultural connotation of both playfulness and empowerment that came with the ‘power dressing’ style. Beyond the silver screen, too, heels had made it into job descriptions, becoming the requirement for many secretary, waitering and flight assistant positions (an inquisitive eye will notice a trend) — and it’s not to say that they were in any way an asset to carrying out the duties. In fact, numerous medical reports draw on irreparable damage to bones, joints and muscles. Obliging women to wear shoes that not only constrain the movement, but have harmful effects on health, is an act of discrimination, waiting to be called out for.

The heel’s cultural association with femininity and desire was in part fuelled by celebrities in the second half of the 20th century. Carrie Bradshaw famously splashed out on all kinds of expensive heels.

It is precisely what’s happening in the wake of celebrity feminism, unafraid to challenge the reduction of a woman, balancing on the balls of her feet, merely to an eye candy that might want a man’s firm forearm for support. Females have initiated petitions, pursuing the ban of stiletto from work places, while high-profile figures, Kristen Stewart in the most recent instance, have characteristically thrown off their Louboutins on red carpets where wearing anything under had been restricted. These events will unlikely change the fashion at large — many sincerely love the sashay of a high heel — but its hold onto the only design that’s physically painful, yet stood the test of time for centuries, has finally cracked. After all, wouldn’t men benefit from the swagger of some heeled boots? Add some height to their figures whilst they’re at it? Now that’s a stronghold we’d like to see them take.

Actress Kristen Stewart removing her heels as an act of disapproval of the unspoken but practiced ban of flat shoes at the Cannes Film Festival red carpet, May 2018.

Actress Kristen Stewart removing her heels as an act of disapproval of the unspoken but practiced ban of flat shoes at the Cannes Film Festival red carpet, May 2018.


Images: Getty Images, Bata Shoe Museum, Wikimedia Commons, Mashable, Giphy.

Text: Maria Zatopi. Maria is a content creator living in Amsterdam. You can find her on Instagram via @zatopi.

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