I don’t wear high heels. They are difficult to walk in, and walking seems an essential part of human life. They make it near impossible to hover over public toilets, and they signify that you’re totally prepared to get mugged on that dark street (also a reason I don’t carry a purse). As silly as I find high heels, they’ve been around in various forms through much of our written history, and they’re definitely not going anywhere anytime soon. Jennifer Lawrence will continue falling down at every awards ceremony until she’s old enough to break a hip.
The thing I find most interesting about high-heel history, however, has to do with who’s wearing the heels. Whether it’s men or women—and often it was men—it seems there’s an extreme class divide from culture to culture, where either the most powerful are wearing the heels or the most subservient are.
Here’s a quick look at who wore heels way back when:
Ancient Egypt — Both male and female aristocracy wore heels, while the peasants went barefoot. At the same time, butchers also seem to have worn heels to elevate them above the blood from their slaughters. It’s unclear if these were the same heels, though it probably goes without saying that aristocracy probably had nicer ones.
Middle Ages — Both men and women wore “pattens,” which were a lower, utilitarian high heel for walking outdoors, but only women wore “chopines,” which were up to 30 inches tall, requiring some slalom poles and sturdy calf muscles just to get out of the door.
Venice — Outlawed chopines, but Catherine of Medici thought up the European high heel in the 16th century, because she was extraordinarily short, and an aristocratic fashion craze began.
England — In the 17th century, Parliament banned high heels, saying the women who used them to coerce a man into marrying her were witches. (I wonder what they thought of kitten heels. Maybe kitten heels were just “practical magic.”)
France — King Louis XIV created his only manly heels that launched a whole cultural fetish. Napoleon then outlawed heels under the guise of equality, which is strange, considering his height. Maybe he thought everyone else would be short without heels? And even though Marie Antoinette wore her high heels to the scaffold, she still lost about a head of height. (Too soon?)
China — Footbinding heels came into popularity for concubines. It’s obviously been speculated this was to keep the women from escaping. It seems likely. But centuries of male testimonial equating high heels to ensnarement witchcraft seem to suggest there’s always been a sexual association with the extra two inches…the shoes, I mean.
US — With the popularity of high heels in Parisian brothels, 19th-century Americans imported these sexy shoes for their prostitutes at record rates. They later fell out of favor, then were revived in the 30s when glamorous stars donned the heels in films. Later, stilettos made their way into pin-up images, reviving the high-heeled fetish throughout WWII, as soldiers coveted their pin-up girls on the battlefields. After the War, female culture seemed to accept stilettos into their homes permanently, with pervasive images of Donna Reeds vacuuming the carpets in the shoes that were once thought to conjure sorcery.