But heels aren't practical- you can't wear them in snow or ice, on the grass, or when you go hiking. Overall, even the most ardent high heel wearer will tell you that they're not very comfortable. Makes you wonder if they were originally designed to walk in.
"The high heel was worn for centuries throughout the near east as a form of riding footwear," says Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
In Persia, the historical name for modern day Iran, good horsemanship was essential to their fighting styles. "When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more effectively," says Semmelhack. By the end of the 16th century, Shah Abbas I had the largest cavalry in the world and was known to make ties with his Western Europe neighbors to defeat the Persian's enemy, the Ottoman Empire.
So in 1599 Abbas sent the first Persian diplomatic mission to Europe, calling on Russia, Spain, and Germany. Just like so many trends in our modern history, all things Persian became the "must haves" for anyone who was anyone. The Persian style shoes were adopted by aristocrats, who believed the shoes gave them a virile, masculine appearance. When the style began to trickle down to the lesser classes, the aristocracy raised the heel heights.
Didn't matter these shoes had no value in the muddy, garbage and sewage filled streets of Europe during the 17th century. "One of the best ways that status can be conveyed is through impracticality," says Semmelhack, who added that ridiculous clothing and accessories have been used by the rich for centuries to announce their high status. "They aren't in the fields working and they don't have to walk far," says Semmelhack. Very true.
King Louis XIV of France was the Imelda Marco of his day, known for his enormous collection of shoes. Short in stature at 5 feet 4 inches, Louis often added 4 inches to his heels, along with elaborate battle scenes painted on the heels. The heels and sole were always dyed red, an expensive color that carries a martial overtone.
Soon other monarchs were copying this trend. Charles II of England's coronation picture of 1661 has him in high, red French style heels, even though he was over 6 feet tall. In the 1670's King Louis issued an edict that only members of his court could wear the fancy red heels. All one had to do to see if another was in favor with the crown was to look at their shoes.
The Enlightenment brought with it a new respect for the rational and practical, rather than the flamboyant and unnecessary. Men's fashion shifted to simpler clothing. This was seen especially in England, where aristocrats wore simplified clothing that matched their work managing country estates.
This was the beginning of the Great Male Renunication, when men would abandon bright, colorful clothes for dark, sober choices. Men's clothing no longer was a symbol of social class and the differences between genders was becoming more pronounced.
"There begins a discussion about men, regardless of station, of birth, if educated, could become citizens," says Semmelhack.
By 1740 men had stopped wearing heels altogether.
Could we ever return to a point when men would wear high heels again? It's a possibility, says Semmelhack. "Absolutely. If it becomes a signifier of actual power, then men will be as willing to wear it as women." We'll see about that.
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