The High Heel: From Functional to Feminist

by Taylor Love
High heels

From functional to feminist, today’s high heels are the center of many feminine trend-setting outfits. Initially, they were a necessity for any man to ride horses. Seriously, the original high heel was developed by the Persian cavalry, who wore a type of boot with heels to ensure their feet did not slip off stirrups. The heels were incredibly useful, especially for horse riders attempting to shoot arrows while riding. Heeled boots have remained popular with horse riders due to their practical and effective nature.

High Heels in Early History

Heels also rose to popularity again in the 12th century in India heels as displayed by the image of a statue from the Ramappa Temple, depicting an Indian woman’s foot clad in a raised shoe. This is one of the first depictions of a woman wearing heeled shoes.

During the Medieval period, platform shoes were adopted as a way to avoid the high levels of sewage in the city streets (both men and women found this useful). Sewage and waste management were virtually nonexistent in this period, and trash and excrement lined the streets.

Ladies old vintage black Boot on white background, isolated

Other countries also designed high heels, often very tall. One of the most extreme platforms were chopines. These were platform shoes designed in Venice, measuring up to 40 centimeters and could only be worn if the owner used a pole to avoid falling  – this puts the stilt in stilettos.

From Function to Feminism then Fashion

By the mid-16th century, European men began integrating this look into fashion. They perhaps came upon the style while trading textiles in what by then had become the Iranian empire as they certainly would have encountered the empire’s large military (the once Persian Calvary).

They soon adopted this footwear after discovering its usefulness. The trend spread across European countries and soon became synonymous with the upper class and wealthy individuals since the shoes showed ownership and maintenance of horses.

During this time, King Louis XIV introduced a style of shoe that was entirely red. In a gesture of power, he insisted that his circle of nobles in the French Court would be allowed to wear them. This exclusivity made the shoes even more desirable, and the practice spread to other parts of the continent among royalty.

The red heel became a symbol of superiority and privilege and was the color of choice for nobles and those aspiring above their born station.

The fashion trend also interested some women, specifically those willing to borrow from the male wardrobe, often with sartorial motivations. Some European women started to dress in more male-oriented styles, for which they received critical remarks from men. However, for years, both men and women wore high heels in Europe.

High Heels are a Sign of Weakness

The enlightenment movement put an end to all the fun. The enlightenment philosophy emphasized reason, rationality, and individualism rather than tradition. This sounds good for high heels, except that enlightenment philosophy found that rationality and ambition for men.

This, of course, meant that women were seen as emotional, irrational, and distinct from men. Under the influence of enlightenment thinking, gender, rather than class, became the primary way of dividing society. It completely wiped androgynous style by establishing patriarchal ideals. As is often the case, the new societal norms inspired a new wave of style, in this case, a very boring and dull trend of “church appropriate” clothing.

These new ideas disguised themselves as a way of bringing people together, the difference between people wasn’t based on status, but sex. So while the Enlightenment united all men, as portrayed as rational, it separated them from women, though to be irrational and quite possibly hysterical. Therefore fashion transformed from an expression of class to an expression of patriarchal desire.

Wealthy affluent men no longer wore colors, high heels, and ornate clothing, but instead, class a more monochrome look that was homogenous across economic classes. High heels were viewed as impractical.

Due to their impracticality in day to day life, high heels took on supposedly “feminine” traits, such as illogical and flippant. This continued through the 18th century, becoming hyper feminized and creating a lasting connotation of weak, irrational, and “girly.”

When High heels returned to popularity, this time among women in the mid-late 17th century, men began to police their height. Venetian law then limited the height to three inches—but this regulation was widely ignored. A 17th-century law in Massachusetts announced that women would be subjected to the same treatment as witches if they lured men into marriage via the use of high-heeled shoes.

High Heels Today

It was not until the 20th century that heels rose again to popularity. In the 1940s and ’50s, the stiletto came onto the scene thanks to new technologies that allowed the killer heel to be stable.

Pornography was a significant influencer in heels popularity embracing high, thin heels, because of the sleek feminine look. This started inherently for male pleasure, but over the decade’s heels became center in the fashion industry.

Woman legs in different shoes

In the 1960s, women wore low kitten heels, and as the disco era followed, the platform sandal was popular, but by the 1980s, short, sensible pumps became common. Each heel a product of the ideas for women during the time.

By the 1990s, a wide variety of heels were available and still developing. Throughout the millennium and into the 21st-century social change began to transform society. In the last few years, high heels have been recognized as a feminist style, as well.

Women wear the shoes for themselves, in the style they prefer, for their enjoyment. Heels are not strictly viewed as in heteronormative contexts either, although high heels today are widely worn by cis women, all genders also enjoy them.

Liked it? Would you please take a moment to support our work?


More on this Topic