She’s Got Sole: A history of the high-heeled shoe

November 10, 2017

Every woman knows that the perfect high-heeled shoe can work wonders for an outfit, elevating it from “wow” to “WOAH”, but there is an interesting history behind the humble stiletto, one that has a surprising origin story to boot.

They were originally used by – and intended for – men

This may come as a huge surprise for those who see high heels as an invention by men for the objectification of women, but high heeled shoes were originally used by men.

Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto says that because good horsemanship was essential to riders in Persia (modern day Iran), they utilised high-heeled shoes to give themselves a better grip in the stirrups and the ability to better shoot his bow and arrow while in motion.

This shoe style spread to Europe after first Persian diplomatic mission to Russia, Germany and Spain, where it was seen as the epitome of masculinity and power. And the shoes themselves became more elaborately decorated and – of course – much higher according to status, wealth and nobility.

Women only adopted the high-heeled shoe later, and these early versions were not something you could wear to a night out – they were known as Chopines, a 15th century invention used to cover the delicate “real” shoes the ladies wore, which were often made from silks or animal skins.

However, Chopines were outlawed in some European cities due to the fact that prostitutes were wearing them in order to gain attention. These height-inducing foot coverings were also highly ridiculed by some of the aristocracy as being impractical and inelegant.

A truly scandalous fashion choice was what escalated the amount of women who wore a high-heeled shoe and that was the wedding of Catherine de Medici to the Duke of Orleans in 1533. Feeling threatened by the Duke’s much taller mistress, de Medici wore a pair of two-inch high-heeled shoes, which endowed her with a pleasant sway as she walked and so endeared her in the eyes of her husband. This bold move made the shoes more popular with women across European society.

World War II and the creation of the stiletto

World War II saw a rise in the imagery of women in risque poses in high-heels as often soldiers would have such photographs pinned up in their tents or barracks in Europe. The high-heeled shoes worn by the women in these images saw a rise in popularity of high-heeled shoes.

In 1954, the first stiletto was invented, named after the Italian word for “thin, sharp knife”. The heels on these shoes were much thinner and slightly curved, and were seen as a serious sex symbol in Hollywood.

Their popularity grew due to fashion-forward thinkers such as Marilyn Monroe, who was rumoured to have one heel shorter than the other, in order to give her her famously seductive gait.

Other starlets soon joined in the craze of stiletto heels as these shoes are popular for giving the leg the illusion of being longer and more shapely, creating a mysterious elegance.

Today’s modern heels: how times have changed

The 1960s saw the introduction of the kitten heel, a lower-heeled ladies shoe which allowed women to do household chores, go shopping and perform daily tasks with ease. They exuded a certain innocent charm as these were not the towering heels of Hollywood nor the dowdy flat shoes of yesteryear, but a good compromise on female sexuality and practicality.

Skip ahead a decade to the 1970s, and enter the platform shoe: a chunky counterpart to the stiletto but no less dramatic. These were the epitome of rebellious fashion and became popular with disco dancing fanatics who needed to be able to spend hours on the dance floor.

During the 1980s and 1990s, stilettos gained popularity as a feminist symbol of power and it was during this time that Christian Louboutin became famous for his ladies shoes with red soles. This period also saw high-heels became a fashion industry of their own, with some pairs of ladies shoes selling for exorbitant amounts.

What is the future of the high-heel?

The past of the high-heeled shoe may be a colourful and controversial one, but the future is certainly bright and positive.

The fashion industry has become akin to the art world by way of the creations we see on the catwalks, and shoes are no exception – designers are creating stunning new looks every season, and some companies are even developing a way to make these shoes more comfortable and healthy to wear.

Whether you are a fan of cute kitten heels or sky-high stilettos, high-heels are a ladies shoe trend that has never gone out of style and the future is as rosy as the sole of a Louboutin.

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