Fashion

High Heels Were Originally Meant for Men

It's hard to think of a more iconically feminine accessory than the high-heeled shoe. In fact, high heels have been associated with women since all the way back in the 1600s. Well, here's a shocker: For the seven centuries that preceded that, they were exclusively worn by men.

17th-Century Red Bottoms

Before high-heeled shoes were the must-have item of the fashion-conscious upper crust, they were imported from an unexpected source: a group of horse-riding Persian diplomats. In 1599, this envoy came to France in search of allies in the war against the Ottoman Empire. They started in Moscow and ended in Lisbon, and where they went, people took notice. Specifically, they took notice of their heightened heels, which were a technological innovation that kept their riders secure in the stirrups. By the time of Louis XIV in France (1643–1715), there was a fascination with all things Persian.

To this day, Louis XIV's name is shorthand for the absolute decadence of the absolute monarchy. It turns out that Europe's longest-reigning royal ruler was also on the smaller side. At five feet, four inches (163 centimeters), he was under the average height of the day, so he pushed the envelope of his footwear to tower in heels as high as four inches (10 centimeters). As time went on, he felt the need to distinguish his footwear even more. A 1701 portrait shows him in full regalia, including a pair of high-heeled shoes with red-painted heels that he decreed could only be worn by those he saw fit. In other words, you could glance at a person's feet and know instantly if they were in the king's inner circle. As Cardi B might say, those are bloody shoes.

The Great Male Renunciation

So what happened? Well, things started changing shortly after the shoes grew popular in Europe. About the same time that Persia-mania was catching fire on the northern continent, European women were starting to assert their equality by adopting traditionally male styles of dress, including heels. According to Bata Shoe Museum curator and "Heights of Fashion" author Elizabeth Semmelhack, "You had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits. They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel — it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits."

Eventually, this was codified into male heels (thick) and female heels (skinny), and the trend gradually began rolling down to the non-elite. But sometime around the turn of the 19th century, men quit wearing heels altogether.

That wasn't the only thing they gave up. Fashion scholars call it "The Great Male Renunciation," and it marks a moment when men's clothing suddenly transformed from something alive with color and individual fashion to something that was comparatively drab and uniform. The various Louis' elaborate silks gave way to simpler silhouettes and dull-colored suits, and the heel for men never really made a comeback. Except among those who use it for its original purpose — even today, cowboy boots have a short heel for holding on to a stirrup. Hey, if the ruff can make a comeback, the men's heel certainly can.

High heels are just one of the many everyday items covered in The Atlantic's "Object Lessons" series. Other paperbacks explore the Hood and the concept of the Doctor. We select books we think you'll like based on the article you just read. If you decide to make a purchase through these links, Curiosity will receive a portion of the sale. We appreciate it.

The Evolution of High Heels

Key Facts In This Video

  1. High heels may have been worn among ancient Egyptians and Greeks. 00:12

  2. The Enlightenment Movement established ideas that suggested men should stop wearing heels. 00:54

  3. Cosmetic procedures like toe-shortening are requested by some who want to wear heels more comfortably. 01:33

5 Fashion Trends Men Wore First

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 6, 2018

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