History of High Heels
The origin of the high heel goes back many centuries in history. The first precursors of stiletto heels were discovered in a tomb of Tebas in Old Egypt, and date from 1000 BC. These heels possibly provided a high social status to those who wore them.
Chopines were prohibited in Venice, but nothing could stop the trend. The invention of the high heel is attributed to Catherine of Medici in Paris, in the 16th century, who used them due to her short stature, and soon introduced them into fashion amongst the European aristocracy.
The formal invention of high heels as fashion is typically attributed to the rather short-statured Italian bride Catherine d'Medici, married at 14 to the Duke of Orleans, wears shoes with two-inch heels to exaggerate her height. The high heel may have been invented by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).
Mary Tudor ("Bloody Mary"), another vertically challenged monarch, wears heels as high as possible.
Fashionable heels were popular for both sexes, and a person who had authority or wealth was often referred to as “well-heeled.”
The English Parliament punished as witches all women who used high heels to seduce men into marrying them. In his biography, the famous Giovanni Casanova declared his love for high heels, which raised women's hoop skirts, thus showing their legs.
In the early 1700s, France's King Louis XIV (The Sun King) would often wear intricate heels decorated with miniature battle scenes. Called “Louis heels,” they were often as tall as five inches. The king decreed that only nobility could wear heels that were colored red (les talons rogue) and that no one's heels could be higher than his own. During the course of the century, a cultural kind of foot fetishism manifested itself in various media. For example, under the influence of rococo, a court-based decorative and ornamental style, heels became higher and more slender, a move that complemented the highly feminine court style. In addition, novelist Restif de Bretonne threw erotic emphasis on the finely arched foot and the delicately curved high heel (Kunzle 2004). Consequently, many women taped their feet to reduce their apparent size. Like the corset, high heels sculpted the body to make it appear more aristocratic, pure, refined, and desirable. The desirable and sexual nature of the high heel was also noted by the Puritans in the New World. The Massachusetts Colony even passed a law banning women from wearing high heels to ensnare a man or they would be tried as a witch (Murstein 1974). It wouldn’t be until the mid 1800s when American would catch up to Europe shoe fashion.
Madame de Pompadour, tiny-footed favorite of Louis XV, popularizes high, narrow "Pompadour" heels. Ladies tape their feet to reduce their apparent size and faint at court.
The “Louis” high heels disappeared with the revolution, and Napoleon banished high heels in an attempt to show equality.
Despite the Napoleonic Code against high heels, Marie Antoinette went to the scaffold to be executed wearing two-inch heels. The heel lowered greatly in the 1790s until it was reduced to the merest wedge or replaced by a spring heel, which was a single layer of leather inserted just above the sole at the back of the shoe. These flimsy shoes were often worn with ribbons to cross and tie around the ankle, reminiscent of the classical Roman sandal. The demise of the heel made it easier for shoes to be made for left and right feet, making them more comfortable.
The late 18th century
Trend toward lower heels had much to do with the French Revolution. During the revolution, high heels became acquainted with the opulence. As a result, most people wished to avoid any semblance of wealth, which was singularly remarkable in the elimination of heels from the common market for both men and women. In the wake of the French Revolution heels become lower than at any time in the 18th century.
In the 1900's, maybe because women's legs were never shown and feet were only partly seen when sitting down, stockings and shoes were not given much attention. The well-off wore silk stockings in dark colours and handmade shoes and boots with fairly pointed toes and only moderately high heels, curved and known as Louis' heels. Silk or fine kid was used for the more dressy styles and sometimes had small buckles or silk bows decorating the front. Shoes were neat and elegant and complemented the outfit in matching or quietly toning colours. Everyday shoes were quite practical. Many were laced up styles with almond shaped toes and Cuban or Louis heels.
High heels were introduced into the USA, imported from brothels in Paris because of the success they had had amongst the clientele who preferred to hire the services of prostitutes who wore these heels.
Heels as fashion became popular again, and the invention of the sewing machine allowed greater variety in high heels. In Victorian art and literature, cartoons and allusions to tiny feet and the affliction of large feet (typical of the elderly spinster) were ubiquitous. Victorians thought that the high heel emphasized the instep arch, which was seen as symbolic of a curve of a woman. The high instep was also seen as preeminently aristocratic and European, while the “lowest type of foot,” that of the African American, had little or no instep. When high heels made their comeback, some wearers were comfortable in five- or even six-inch heels. As with corsets, high heels were claimed to be not only harmless, but beneficial to the health because, as advertisers stated, high heels helped alleviate backaches and stooping and made walking less tiring. But critics cited that high heels created a more sexually aggressive gait and compared the high heel to a “poisoned hook” to catch an unwary male. Some even associated the high heel with the cloven hoof of a devil or a witch. Cautionary tales from this time, such as many versions of Cinderella, concerned themselves with foot fetishism and warnings against fashionable foot compression (Kunzle 2004). Even with this criticism, America opened its first heel factory in 1888. However, America and other European countries still largely imitated French shoe fashion.
The ladies' "pump" or court shoe, a British invention, reaches America. Shoe stores begin to stock shoes with a range of widths around now.
Shoes with a single or T-strap fastening across the foot were also very popular, and these are considered characteristic of the 1920s. Long boots like a slightly squashed down riding boot, called "Russian' boots were a fashion craze in the mid-twenties but only for a few years and were never as widely or continuously worn as the boots of the sixties and seventies. Informal shoes had round toes and lower heels which were either cuban shaped or flat and square. Top stitching was used on toe and heel caps. Most shoes fastened with laces or straps, some which were open over the arch of the foot and laced across before being tied, were called "gillie' shoes, based on traditional Scottish styles.
The idea prevailed in Old Greece, where Esquilo, the first great Greek theatrical author mounted his actors on platform shoes of differing heights to indicate each character's social status. The same idea existed in the East. The Japanese emperor Hirohito was crowned in 1926 on platform shoes with a height of 30 cm.
High heels are associated with sex. Japanese courtiers had clogs of 15 to 30 cm, Chinese concubines and Turkish odalisques had high sandals possibly to prevent them from escaping from the harem, and prostitutes of Old Rome were identified by their high heels.
The modern European fashion of the high heel comes from the Italian "chapiney" or "chopine" style: mounted shoes on a 15 to 42 cm high cylinder. Some reached 75 cm and the ladies who wore them had to lean on sticks so that they could walk.
While high heels enjoyed widespread popularity in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth-century women demanded more comfortable, flat-soled shoes-- that is until the roaring twenties when higher hemlines encouraged visible, elaborate, high, slender Louis heels. The Depression during the 1930s influenced Western shoe fashion as heels became lower and wider. Hollywood, however, gave the new heel an elegant look and stars’ shoes like Ginger Roger’s white and glittery heels began to challenge the influence of French shoe fashion in the West (Turim).
Luxury items were in short supply due to WWII and high heels tended to stay moderately high and thick. With the effects of WW II in the 1940s, leather shoes were difficult to come by, and shoes had to be made with heavy wooden soles and wedge heels. Resourceful women refused to accept the ugly appearance of these shoes and made a feature of them, painting them in bright colours like Dutch clogs, sometimes in contrasting layers of stripes or decorating the sides of the soles and heels with studs or small shells.
In 1947, the New Look brought smoky biege colour stockings and plain high-heeled court shoes, or shoes finely strapped round the ankles. Shoes were more delicate. Plain high heeled court shoes in black leather or suede became the predominant shoe style. The shape was unexaggerated, heels were not noticeably thin or thick, toes were generally rounded. The classic cut-out curve at the front of the court shoe was now cut in a V-shape. Open toed, sling back shoes with high heels, platform soles and ankle straps were still popular, especially with cocktail and short evening dresses. Sports and casual shoes were also less clumsy looking. Wedge heels were still worn but they were shallower wedged, often joined to flat rather than platform soles.
Classic court shoes were the predominant styles of the 1950s, and with strappy sandals and flat ballet pumps were the main base styles.
The revival of Western high fashion in the post-war 1950s was led by French designer Christian Dior and his collaboration with shoe designer Roger Vivier. Together they developed a low-cut vamp (the portion of the shoe that covers the toe and instep) Louis shoe with a narrow heel called a stiletto, which is the Italian word for a small dagger with a slender, tapering blade (West 1993). First mentioned in London's Daily Telegram on September 10, 1953, the exaggeratedly slender heel and narrowing of the toe equated sheer height with chic and strongly suggested phallic-erectile symbolism and sexual maturation. Stilettos were often banned from public buildings because they caused physical damage to the floors (West 1993).
In 1955, tall "stiletto" heels for women's shoes, invented in Italy, become a fashion rage. Very pointed toes come into vogue for both sexes.
Boot wearing become an established part of fashion for the next twenty years. Widish, squashy, knee-length boots with varying heel heights and pointed or squared off toes were known as 'kinky boots'.
Shoes became chunkier with thicker, lower heels and rounded or squared toes. Small platform soles were beginning to appear on some styles. Buckle shoes in patent became very fashionable and some styles were made with silver or gold coloured heels to match the buckles.
With the creation of the miniskirt in the early 1960s, stilettos were attached to boots that enhanced the look of bare legs. As the feminist movement gained momentum, however, stilettos went out of favor with the cry: “Liberate the captive foot of womanhood!” For many feminists, high heels indicated subservience and sexual stereotyping by men. High heels were titillating “man-made” objects, literally involved in crippling women, or at least slowing them down when the need to run away from male violence and oppressors arose. Heels were seen as a comparable successor to foot binding and the tight-laced corset as perverse regulatory objects for molding the feminine. Consequently, heels dropped and thickened, and soon low-heeled shoes with square toes replaced the stiletto (Gamman 1993). Late 1960s disillusionment with contemporary life and anxiety about the future led young people throughout much of the West to embrace the hippie culture that revived the platform shoe.
Platform shoes became immensely popular in the 1970s, and perhaps no instance epitomizes the era like John Travolta’s Cuban-heeled platforms in the opening sequence of Saturday Night Fever in 1977. The 1970s in general were a tumultuous time of experimentation of drugs, sex and, of course, fashion. Cynicism abounded as various cultures and subcultures vied for public attention. Men as well as women would dress to shock, often wearing platform shoes reminiscent of the ancient kothorni and chopine with psychedelic swirls and colors.
1980s & 1990s
In the post-modern context of the 1980s, the feminist rejection of fashion started to lose much of its grassroots support. The idea that fashion, specifically sexy high heels, were not simply oppressive but offered pleasure to women became more widely accepted (Gamman 1993). Critics, particularly feminists in the 1980s, argued that fashion can be an experiment with appearances, an experiment that challenges cultural meaning. This change of heart about high heels perhaps was provoked by counter-cultural street fashion of the early 1980s as well as by feminist debates about pleasure and female desire, which indirectly changed the way fashion was understood. Western women now claimed they were wearing high heels for themselves and that heels gave them not only height but also power and authority.
While lower heels were preferred during the late 60’s and 70’s, higher heels returned in the 1980s and early 1990s. Specifically, Manolo Blahnik’s high-heeled shoes were seen everywhere on the catwalks as new designers started to rethink high heels. As opulent television shows such as Dallas and Dynasty suggested, excess was the hallmark of the 1980s. While flat shoes were likely worn in the corporate culture, more sophisticated designer high heels were still sign of Yuppie success. While designers who helped create the very tall heels of the 1990s, such as Jimmy Choo and Emma Hope, rode into that decade on this profitable trend, by the late 1990s heels started to decline once again as the hippie revival emphasized comfort over fashion (West 1993).
In the 2000s for a woman to have well-shaped legs became more of an asset than ever before. Stockings and shoes were now very important, hemlines had risen. Black stockings which had been generally worn were replaced by flesh coloured ones in silk or cotton lisle. Silk stockings were expensive but considered worthwhile for town and evening wear. For the country and sportswear, ribbed and patterned woollen and cotton stockings were usually worn. Diamond patterns were very fashionable. In the summer, light coloured cotton ankle socks were popular.
Women in the 21st century have more shoe choices than ever before. From athletic wear to the 2006 “heelless” high heel from Manolo Blahnik, women can choose to wear what they want, even hybrid shoes such as “heeled” tennis shoes and flip flops. What is certain is that heels have not disappeared. Noted for its unique classes, Crunch, a nationwide gym, even offers a 45-minute “Stiletto Strength” classes that strengthen women’s legs and calves. Perhaps influenced in part by successful TV and film hits as Sex in the City and The Devil Wears Prada, some women are even going under the knife to shorten their toes or inject padding into the balls of their feet to allow their feet to fit more comfortably into a pair of stilettos (Sherr). While these may be oddities of fashion, they gesture toward an exciting array of fashion choices women have today.