Women began wearing high heels in the mid-1500s. The first recorded instance of a high-heeled shoe being worn by a woman was by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century3. Before this, women had only worn platform shoes, particularly found around the Venice area of Italy, called “chopines,” and often, but not exclusively, worn by prostitutes. Historical accounts also place their wear and height by members of nobility with some of these platforms as high as 20 inches tall1.
Women began to wear high heels in the 1630s as a protest against men’s power in society. By the 18th century, high-heeled shoes had split along gender lines. By this time, heels for men were chunky squares attached to riding boots or tall formal dress boots, while women’s high heels were narrow and pointy and often attached to slipper-like dress shoes (similar to modern heels). By the 20th century, high heels with a slim profile represented femininity5.
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Early History of High Heels
Throughout history, high heels have evolved from being a practical footwear choice to a symbol of fashion and status. The earliest known origins of high heels can be traced back to the Middle East, specifically to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Persia.
Middle East Origins
In ancient Egypt, both men and women wore heeled sandals as early as 3500 BC. These traditional sandal-like shoes, called “kitten heels,” were adorned with intricate designs and patterns. Interestingly, the height of the heel indicated the wearer’s social status, with higher heels representing higher social standing.
It was the Persians who truly embraced the idea of high heels. Men of royalty and the upper class wore heeled shoes to signify their aristocracy. Heels were not only fashionable but also offered practical benefits on horseback, providing stability and preventing the foot from slipping through the stirrup.
The adoption of high heels in Europe can be attributed to various factors, including trade and cultural exchanges. It is believed that the Crusaders, upon returning from the Holy Land, may have brought back the concept of high heels with them. European nobility, particularly in the 16th century, began to embrace high heels as a symbol of wealth and prestige.
Heels as a Symbol of Status
During the 17th century, high heels became increasingly associated with nobility and the upper class. The privilege of wearing heels was reserved for the elite, further accentuating the social hierarchy of the time.
Nobility and Upper Class
In Europe, wearing high heels became a way to distinguish oneself from the lower classes. The higher the heel, the more prestigious the wearer. Elaborately decorated and intricate designs became popular among the nobility, showcasing their exquisite taste and wealth.
The Sun King’s Influence
The French King Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King, played a significant role in the rise of high heels as a symbol of status and power. Louis XIV was known for his love of fashion and extravagance, and he often wore heels adorned with red soles. This fashion statement became a trend among the French nobility, as they sought to emulate their esteemed monarch.
The Decline and Rise of Heels
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, heels fell out of favor with the onset of the French Revolution. The revolution aimed to promote equality and the rejection of aristocratic symbols, including high heels. However, heels made a comeback in the mid-19th century as fashion trends evolved and society shifted towards industrialization.
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High Heels in the 19th Century
The 19th century brought about significant changes in fashion and societal norms. High heels continued to be a prominent feature, reflecting the changing roles of women in society.
Fashionable Victorian Era
During the Victorian era, high heels became an essential fashion accessory for women. They were often paired with long, flowing dresses and symbolized refinement and femininity. However, the heights of heels varied, with lower heels being more appropriate for daytime wear, while higher heels were reserved for special occasions.
Industrial Revolution’s Impact
The rise of the Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on fashion, including high heels. As factories and machines revolutionized production, shoes became more accessible and affordable. This accessibility allowed a wider range of women to embrace high heels as a fashion statement, regardless of their social status.
Modesty and Gender Roles
In the 19th century, high heels were also seen as a way to emphasize gender roles and enhance modesty. Women were expected to dress in a manner that concealed their legs, and high heels played a crucial role in achieving this modesty. The elongated silhouette achieved by wearing heels was considered more appropriate and ladylike.
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High Heels in the 20th Century
The 20th century witnessed significant social and cultural shifts, which greatly influenced the popularity and perception of high heels.
The Roaring Twenties
The 1920s, commonly referred to as the Roaring Twenties, brought about a radical change in fashion. Women began to embrace shorter hemlines, and high heels continued to be a popular choice, adding to the overall glamorous and liberated image of the era. Heels became synonymous with the emerging flapper style, as women donned T-strap heels and Mary Jane pumps in bold colors and patterns.
The Golden Age of Hollywood, spanning from the 1930s to the 1950s, played a pivotal role in shaping the perception of high heels. Film stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn became style icons, known for their elegant and sophisticated looks. High heels became synonymous with glamour and femininity, and women aspired to emulate the fashion choices of their favorite Hollywood stars.
After the end of World War II, fashion underwent a transformative period. High heels became a symbol of optimism and a return to elegance and luxury. Stiletto heels gained popularity, providing a sleek and fashionable look. Women embraced the allure of high heels, associating them with empowerment and confidence.
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The Modern High Heel
High heels have continued to evolve and adapt to contemporary fashion trends. The modern era has seen an explosion of designer influence and diverse styles.
In the late 20th century, high-end fashion designers started to play a significant role in shaping the world of high heels. Designers such as Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin gained international recognition for their innovative and daring designs. High heels became a form of art, combining unique materials, textures, and colors that showcased individuality and creativity.
Today, high heels are available in countless styles, catering to the diverse preferences and tastes of women worldwide. From classic pumps to strappy sandals to chunky platforms, there is a high heel for every occasion and personal style. Moreover, the acceptance of gender fluidity has led to an increase in men embracing high heels as a fashion statement, further blurring traditional fashion boundaries.
In conclusion, high heels have come a long way from their early origins in the Middle East to becoming a global fashion statement. They have symbolized status, power, and femininity throughout history and continue to be a coveted accessory in modern times. Whether you choose to wear high heels for their aesthetic appeal, confidence boost, or to simply embrace your personal style, the allure and impact of these iconic shoes are undeniable.
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