When Men Wore High Heels

Did you know that high heels used to be worn
by upper class men? And that WWII helped bring high heels back
into fashion for women? If I ask you to imagine “high heel shoes”,
your initial thought process probably doesn’t include much about men. And that’s because, today, high heels are
primarily worn by women, and although we’re familiar with the shoe, it has a variety of
styles, shapes, sizes, and social meanings. But whether you’re admiring them, or figuring
out how to keep your balance in a pair of sky high stilettos, heels and women tend to
go together in the modern mind. But have you ever wondered how something that
has origins as a shoe for horseback riders, as well as male warriors and aristocrats,
ended up in the world of women’s high fashion? So to understand this, first we have to ask
ourselves: What were some of the earliest kinds of high
heels and why were men wearing them? So the answer to this question is part warrior,
part fancy pants aristocrats, and part horse… which kind of sounds like a formula for the
chimera of my nightmares. But anyway, on his podcast “99% Invisible”,
Roman Mars notes that the earliest wearers of high heels were men, not women. He notes that as early as the 10th century
men who rode horseback in certain cultures wore heeled boots because it made it easier
to stay inside the stirrups. And we can see that this style persists in
certain kinds of riding boots today, most notably cowboy boots. According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, the Senior
Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (which is awesome, I’ve been there), high
heels were essential for horseback riders and marksmen in Persia (or modern day Iran). She notes, “When the soldier stood up in his
stirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and
arrow more effectively.” At the end of the 16th century Persia’s Shah
Abbas the First had an impressive cavalry, or soldiers who fight on horseback. When he sent the first Persian diplomats to
Russia, Germany, and Spain in 1599, to help form alliances to defeat the Ottoman Empire,
Persian fashion and heels became something of a fashion craze… for European men…
especially wealthy aristocratic men. And I mean, I understand, because those Persian
diplomats were looking pretty fresh. After that, heels for men, became a fashion
statement linked to virility and high class. So by the 17th and early 18th century, we
start to see stylish high heeled shoes on kings and noblemen throughout Western Europe. But just like today, walking around in heels
was largely impractical and painful, especially in cobbled streets. But Semmelhack notes that this was kind of
the point (pun intended) since wearing a shoe you couldn’t walk far in or work in was
a sign of wealth, distinction, and high birth. And the original red bottoms weren’t Louboutins
but a different Louis altogether, that’s French King Louis XIV. He wore high heels with red paint on them
in the 1670s and soon had all of his courtiers wearing red heels to show loyalty. Ok so early high heels were kind of a man’s
man’s world. But that leads us to the second question: When did the heel high become associated with
women? Well the trend spread to women around the
1630s, and the shoes were worn for somewhat similar reasons as men. That is to signal class status and high style. But unlike their male counterparts, who were
donning squarer heels with broader toes, the styles adopted by European women throughout
the 17th century, tended to favor slimmer heels and pointier toes. Because everyone knows that super skinny heels
that squish all of your toes together into an unnatural point are about as comfortable
as walking on hot lava. By the 18th century, heels for men (along
with other ostentatious forms of clothing such as heavy jewelry, rich fabrics, and bright
colors) went out of fashion in favor of more staid clothing that was more practical for
getting work done… and you know, walking. During that era in Europe there was also a
focus on men’s ability to become equal citizens through rational thinking, which made fancy
clothing less appealing. So, the high heel began to be cast as inherently
feminine because it was viewed as impractical. But heels weren’t always the most popular
footwear and about 50 years after men kicked high heels to the curb, women also started
to eschew the fancy footwear at the end of the French Revolution (and I really hope you
appreciate that very “subtle” word play.) And it wasn’t until the mid 19th century
that the heel made a comeback for women… but not as general fashion. The reemergence actually had to do with the
invention of the camera because heels were often used in women’s fashion photography. But some of those connections were about style
and some were about sexuality. That’s because, early erotic photographers
were some of the first folks to embrace the reemergence of the heel on women in suggestive
photographs. And during World War II, we saw a surge in
popularity of the stiletto heel, perhaps because the expansion of steel technology made the
spiky shoes a little more stable. Which is a good thing, since that skinny little
stick has to support the weight of your entire body. But a bigger part of the popularity of the
stilettos in the 40s and 50s, was women’s desire to mirror the fashions of popular wartime
pinups. And if you take a look, you can even see high
heels on the side of World War II planes. So heels for women became coded as attractive
and desirable, even outside of any signifier of class status or the ability to ride a horse
while shooting a bow and arrow. And throughout the 20th and 21st century,
heels continued to boom in popularity as a sign of poise and feminine charm. So how does it all add up? Well before they were high fashion, heels
had a pretty practical function for horse riders. But once they became linked to sexuality and
femininity in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, the heel took something
of a turn. Now there are studies that suggest that women
who wear high heels are viewed as more sexually attractive and more powerful in the workplace
by straight men. But considering that high heels started explicitly
as men’s fashion it’s interesting to question how much of those ideas are culturally coded
rationalizations versus objective scientific fact. But heels can also have a down side, since
walking on your toes can cause undue stress on the joints and physical discomfort after
wearing them for a long amount of time, especially if your weight isn’t distributed evenly
throughout your foot. Which is now raising questions about high
heels being mandated as a part of work uniforms for women across the country. And love ‘em or hate ‘em, it looks like
heels are going to be around for a while. But who knows, maybe they’ll swing back
into fashion for guys. So what do you think? Anything to add to our history of the heel
and its unexpected gender flip? Let us know down in the comments, and if you
enjoy Origin of Everything and want to make sure you get it every week, like our Facebook
page or subscribe on Youtube. And we’ll see you next week! Hi guys, thanks for all of your feedback on
last week’s episode “tracing the evolution of the 2nd amendment.” I just wanted to take time to shout out some
of our viewers who left comments on Facebook and YouTube and also to remind you that if
you haven’t gotten a chance to yet, be sure to check it out now. So thanks to EddyGurge, Emeke Nkadi, and Stella
Engel on Youtube and Megan Brown on Facebook. Also, if you like Origin of Everything, be
sure to follow us on Facebook and Youtube, our links are down in the description. So that’s it for now and we’ll see you
next week!

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