The Unusually Rich History of the High Heel

The Unusually Rich History of the High Heel

It’s a fairly simple process to trace the history of footwear, since it’s well-chronicled, probably inadvertently, in paintings, etchings, drawings, statuary and other forms of art and ancient literature.

We all know what a high-heeled shoe is, but just for clarity let’s define it. It’s considered a heel, or a high-heel, when the back of the foot (the heel) is raised, but the toe is still on the ground. When the entire foot is raised, we call it a platform. If the platform tapers toward the ground, placing the toe lower than the heel, it’s called a wedge. Other names for various types of high shoes and high-heeled shoes are stilettos, blades, tapers, blocks and pumps.

The term “high-heeled shoe” is generally a reference to a woman’s shoe, meeting one of the descriptions above. Technically though, there are men’s styles which also have raised heels, such as the cowboy boot and certain types of men’s dance shoes–mostly Latin dance shoes for flamenco, salsa and various styles of Cuban dance. In the case of dance shoes, the purpose of the raised heel is to pitch the body-weight slightly forward, which creates the posture required by the dance.

As far as archeologists know, the first symbols and drawings of high-heels were in Egyptian murals where both sexes were depicted in heels. Interpretation of the murals indicates the shoes were part of a costume for a specific type of ceremony. Raised shoes were also used in Egypt for certain occupations that were messy, such as butchering animals for meat. The platform (usually wood) was used to keep the delicate cloth or leather upper from being damaged.

Theater was popular in ancient Rome and Greece, where the actors used shoes raised by use of wooden platforms to indicate the importance of a person on stage. The taller a character stood, the more important that character was in the drama. Additionally, the prostitutes of ancient Rome wore a high-heel similar to the contemporary design and it was their trademark apparel used to identify their trade.

As with the raised shoes of Egypt, the Middle Ages saw the development of a platform shoe designed to keep the delicate leather safe from the mud and water in the streets. This raised shoe concept took flight in Europe beginning some time during the fifteenth century. The raised shoe became popular with the wealthy, who wore platforms as high as thirty inches. These shoes, called chopines, were so difficult to walk in, that the wearers of the shoes required the help of several servants to move around. Very few men used this type of shoe.

It was in Venice that the chopine became associated with a ranking of social hierarchy. The awkwardness of these shoes eventually lead to the invention of shoes built in two parts instead of only one–resulting in a design more similar to the contemporary shoe, with a flexible and therefore more comfortable upper and a rigid and therefore more durable sole.

While the raised platform shoe was developing strictly along the lines of a statement of social status, a more functional evolution of the heel was taking place with the predecessors to the footwear of the gauchos and the cowboys. A raised heel was incorporated into the work-boot of men of that profession to create a more stable position on horseback and give the rider power to execute the work tasks more effectively and even more safely, as the work was quite dangerous and injuries were not uncommon.

As with most things that begin for functional reasons, style asserts itself at some point, and that was the case with the origins of the cowboy boot as well. The heels men wore became taller and thinner and were eventually no use on horseback at all, but became nothing more or less than a style at court, with heels as high as four inches on men’s footwear.

By 1530 heels on men were more common than heels on women. It was around then that the very famous Catherine de’ Medici, who happened to be the wife of Henry II of France, decided she wanted to be taller. She worked with a cobbler to design a wedge that had some of the characteristics of a high-heeled shoe and some of the qualities of a platform shoe–which means in layman’s terms that it made her taller and it made her butt stick out. She seemed happy with both results.

This idea of hers caught on quickly and remained the rage among the French aristocracy until the French revolution brought an end to all their frivolous activities. It wasn’t until almost a hundred years later that the heel resurfaced as a popular style and only for women. Its popularity has vacillated since then, with the heel coming in and out of favor. In the nineteen-sixties it was virtually non-existent, whereas currently it seems to be quite the fashion.