A History of High Heels

This is a guest post by Jordan Baker of East India Blogging Co. Thanks Jordan!

In contemporary Western society, heels are often seen as the epitome of female fashion. But this wasn’t always the case. Heels have their origins among the male-dominated warrior class of Persia. Making their first appearance in the historical record sometime between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, heeled shoes were originally designed to help Persian calvary ‘clip in’ to their stirrups and stabilize them in battle. To serve in the Persian cavalry, one needed to possess two qualities: to be wealthy enough to afford horses and be male. So, as the years wore on, heeled riding shoes became associated with male nobility, eventually making their way into the elites’ everyday use. (Source)

Heeled shoes were first seen in Europe in 1599 when a Persian delegation made a trip through Western European states to gain support for their war against the growing Ottoman Empire. As the Persians made their way around the courts of Europe, their heels several inches off the ground, European elites took notice. Always eager to lord their wealth and status over those they deemed inferior, the male nobility of Europe quickly took up the fashion. (Source)

With time, however, this new fashion trickled down to the artisan and peasant classes, leaving the nobility with only one option: make the heels bigger and super colorful. By the time of the reign of perhaps the most famous European monarch of all time, Louis XIV, men’s fashion—especially their shoes—had reached its most colorful. Indeed, the most famous portrait of Louis XIV shows him sporting a pair of white shoes with red bows and red heels, which had to have been three or four inches high.

Always a mastermind of public image, Louis figured out a way to turn his love of red heels into a means of controlling the courtiers that constantly surrounded him at Versailles. If a noble wore a red heel, as the Sun King himself did, he was in favor with Louis. If not, well, then, sucked to be him. Louis began this policy in the early 1670s, and from there on out, French noblemen who had the honor of wearing les talons rouges, or red heels, always made sure to show off their status in the portraits they commissioned. (Source)

Fashion and status weren’t the only reasons aristocratic men adopted the heel as their footwear of choice. In the seventeenth-century, calves were seen as men’s most attractive bodily features. What better to accentuate a pair of toned calves than heels? In a popular book of the day, The School of Venus, or the Ladies Delight, Reduced into Rules of Practice, which attempted to educate young men on how to court women, the author stated that a man “must have a well-fashioned foot, and well proportioned legs with full calves and not like cat-sticks, and a pair of lusty brawny thighs to bear him up…” Keen to show off their ‘proportioned legs’ to the women of court, young nobles gladly added inches to their heels.

In the early decades of the eighteenth-century, more and more women began adopting high heels into their own fashion. As this trend progressed, women’s shoes became more slender and ornamental. Unhappy with the symbolic shot this took at their masculinity, the noblemen of Europe began abandoning their heels. By the 1730s, heels had virtually disappeared from men’s fashion, though they have persisted in niche trends, such as the Chelsea boot, ever since. (Source)


Born and raised in North Carolina, Jordan Baker holds a BA and MA in history from North Carolina State University. He loves all things historical but focuses mainly on the history of the Atlantic World. Read more from Jordan at East India Blogging Co.


jillianne hamilton headshotJillianne Hamilton is an author, history enthusiast, book lover, and graphic designer. Her debut novel, Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, was shortlisted for the 2016 Prince Edward Island Book Award. Her debut non-fiction book, The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII is now available. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada's beautiful east coast and is working on her debut historical fiction novel.
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