Who Invented High Heels? History of Fashionable Footwear

Commonly associated with women’s fashion today, the origin of high heels is often traced back to 10th-century Persia, where soldiers wore heels for functionality.

But who first dared to rise above the rest? And were butchers the ones to first wear high heels? 

Who Invented High Heels?

High heels were not so much invented by a single individual as they were adopted and adapted through various cultures and periods. The consensus, however, is that the high heel descends from the riding footwear of medieval Persian cavalrymen. These heels served a functional purpose, helping to secure the rider’s feet in the stirrups.

Were Butchers the First to Wear High Heels?

While not widely acknowledged as the first, there is evidence that suggests they did wear them to elevate themselves above the blood and offal on slaughterhouse floors.

High Heeled Shoes

The journey of high-heeled shoes is long and varied. From the practical heeled footwear of the Persian cavalry arrived the trend of men wearing heels in Western Europe, particularly during the 17th century. Heeled shoes were a status symbol; a sign of nobility and privilege.

Over time, the thick high heel evolved into various forms, including the now-fashionable thin stiletto heel. This evolution was influenced by changing social norms and technologies in leather and wood craftsmanship, spurring a diversity of heeled shoes suitable for different sexes, occasions, and statuses.

Wearing Heels

Wearing heels was once socially acceptable for men, serving as a marker of status and power. Notable figures such as Louis XIV of France were synonymous with wearing high, red heels. But as the French Revolution approached, men stopped wearing heels due to their association with the detested aristocracy.

The transition to more practical footwear, such as flat shoes and riding boots, marked the decline of heels for men. Conversely, women began adopting high heels, eventually leading to their association with women’s fashion and femininity in today’s world.

Platform Shoes

Platform shoes represent another category of elevated footwear with a long history. They have been around since ancient Greece and were worn by actors to signify different statuses or characters.

However, platform shoes differ from high heels in that they are thick soles that uniformly raise the entire foot, rather than pitching it forward. While not directly related to the question of butchers being the pioneers of heel-wearing, platforms signal another facet of how shoes have been used throughout cultures to add height and distinction.

The Evolution of Heeled Shoes

From their inception as sturdy footwear for Persian cavalrymen, heeled shoes have transformed drastically, peaking in various eras as different forms of footwear. Throughout the 18th century, Western Europe saw the rise and fall of men’s heels, the elaboration of women’s heels, and the shift in societal norms dictating who wore heels and why.

During the 20th century, fashion icons like David Bowie reclaimed heels for men as part of their avant-garde personas, although they never regained their original status as menswear. Women’s heels, on the other hand, continued to ascend in height and variation, becoming intrinsic to women’s fashion.

Red Heels and the Sun King

King Louis XIV’s penchant for red heels is an exemplary tale in the story of heeled shoes. His red heels, often decorated with battle scenes, were indicative of his regal bearing and became so iconic that red high heels became known as “Louis heels.” 

This era exemplified heels as a symbol of power and nobility, something that commoners could not easily imitate – the red heels were dyed with an expensive process, further entrenching the gap between the wealthy and the common people.

Stilettos and the Post-War Feminine Mystique

Post-World War II society saw the rebirth of the heel in the form of stilettos. The stiletto, with its long, thin heel, became synonymous with women’s empowerment and glamour in the 1950s. These heels became emblems of womanly allure, with designers like Roger Vivier leading the way.

The stiletto heel underscored the desired aesthetics of the time, accentuating the legs and pointed toes. This trend solidified the heel’s place in women’s fashion, making it a quintessential accessory for the modern woman.

The Heel’s Role in Gender and Identity

Through the years, high heels have also played a role in discussions about gender and identity. The societal construct of who should wear heels and why has fluctuated greatly. As fashion trends continue to challenge traditional gender roles, heels are again being adopted by everyone regardless of gender, echoing their unisex beginnings in ancient empires.

READ MORE: Ancient Civilizations Timeline: The Complete List from Aboriginals to Incans

Famous figures and artists have used high heels as a means to express individuality and blur the lines of gender-specific fashion.

The Heel in Art and Expression

The art world has celebrated the heel’s form and symbolism, gracing countless paintings, sculptures, and photographs. From the pointed-toe heels in Renaissance portraits to surreal representations in modern art, heels have served as a canvas for artists to explore themes of fashion, power, seduction, and gender.

Artistic representations of heels often reflect the cultural zeitgeist, providing insight into the values and contradictions of the times.

The Engineering and Craftsmanship Behind Heeled Shoes

The design and creation of heeled shoes require a unique blend of artistry and precision. The engineering of heeled shoes has to account for the distribution of weight and the demands of the foot’s structure.

Advances in materials and manufacturing have allowed for a wide range of styles and heights, from wood-carved platform shoes to leather stilettos. The craftsmanship involved in creating a comfortable, durable, and aesthetically pleasing high heel is a testament to the ingenuity of shoe designers.

Heels and Health: A Contemporary Concern

While high heels have continued to evolve in design and aesthetics, the impact on the wearer’s health remains a controversial subject. Podiatrists warn against the prolonged wearing of very high heels due to potential damage to the feet, legs, and back. This has led to a resurgence of flat shoes and low heels in women’s and men’s fashion, sparking a dialogue about balancing style with well-being.

High Heels as a Cultural Phenomenon

High heels have symbolized everything from equestrian utility to extravagant excess and sexual allure, securing their place as an enduring cultural phenomenon.

Exhibitions like those in the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and Google Arts & Culture’s online platforms show off heels’ long history—from the riding boots of the 10th century to the red-heeled shoes of the pre-French Revolution aristocrats, to the red carpet stilettos of today.

Heels in the Modern Context 

Today, the high heel still grapples with the dichotomy of function versus fashion. On one hand, there are practical designs such as the Cuban heel on cowboy boots and the low heels of certain professional women’s shoes. On the other, we experience the extremes of runway fashion with its sky-high heels, a far cry from any semblance of practicality.

The variety of heel thicknesses and heights—from the thick high heel to the kitten heel—exemplifies the continuous innovation in shoe design.

The Lasting Impact of Heels

While butchers may not hold the primary claim to the invention of high heels, their early use of elevated footwear speaks to the heel’s multifaceted role across history.

The high heel has journeyed from the battlefields of the Persian Empire to the fashion runways of the modern world, continuing to elevate the wearer—now predominantly women—in status, style, and literal height.

References:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10253866.2016.1153830

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1179/036121181803657855

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/download/17792/19067

https://mackseyjournal.scholasticahq.com/article/21828.pdf

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