Written by Tom Flanagan | June 15th 2022
Heels have long been a symbol of status, style and femininity but once upon a time they were synonymous with masculinity too. Dating back to ancient Egypt, walking in raised shoes was at first a practical choice for working men that was quickly adopted by the men and women of upper classes as a sign of nobility and status. Since then, high heels have continued to feature in men's fashion throughout the ages from King Louis XIV to the late David Bowie. Fashion experts Fleur Feijen and Stefania Jesi help unpack the long history of men and high heels and why heels are still a statement shoe for men today.
One day, seeking inspiration to turn a drab woman’s heel into something special, Christian Louboutin spotted his assistant painting her nails with red varnish. In an inspired turn, he painted the red varnish onto the sole of the shoe. The rest, as they say, is history.
What was probably unbeknownst to him at the time was the origins of high heels and its relationship with the colour red from the very beginning. Long before heels were statement pieces of footwear, they were practical ones. Most ancient Egyptians of the working class walked around barefoot, however, raised shoes were used by butchers to keep their feet clean and above the blood of dead animals. And perhaps more interestingly, most of the heels were worn by men.
‘Kothornos' or ‘buskins’ were wooden platform sandals worn by male and female actors in ancient Greece and Rome to distinguish the class or importance of a character
“The origin of wearing heels finds its place in ancient Egypt”, says Expert in Fashion Fleur Feijen. “Throughout ancient times untill the last century, heels mostly had two purposes. The first one was related to hygiene and health as back then streets were covered in mud and water, so people invented ways to avoid getting their feet wet, dirty and cold. The second, and more long-lasting reason to wear heels was as a symbol of status. People would literally be elevated above the average height of others and that in itself would signal class”.
As time passed, in ancient Greece and Rome, heeled shoes were soon worn by actors—all of whom were male as women were banned from performing—in order to portray the difference between social classes and the importance of a character during a play. These platform sandals were called “kathorni” or “buskins” and made out of wooden cork. And while these heels were more akin to thick sandals than the sleek, angled shoes we know today, the ancients are nonetheless considered to be the first to introduce what would soon be the footwear of choice for noblemen.
Arguably the first appearance of heels as we know them now was in 10th century Persia— modern-day Iran—where high heels featured as a functional riding shoe for men. Noblemen would wear shoes with heels when on horseback because the heel could be hooked onto the stirrups, giving the rider a firmer grip. This meant the rider could stand up and remain steady while using their weapon, which could now be a larger and heavier piece as a result.
For an empire that was recognised for its horsemanship and cavalry in battle, there are arguments that credit the success of Persian military tactics to the high heel. And it was in part down to the Persians’ prolific reputation in battle that led to the high heels being introduced into Western society around the turn of the 17th century.
Medieval Persian noblemen would wear shoes with heels to help them grip to the stirrups when riding. Image source: Bata Shoe Museum
Abbas the Great—one of Iran’s most recognised leaders—was interested in pursuing diplomatic relations with Europe. At the same time, Europe, and England specifically, had been creating trade relationships with Persia for the past century. One mutual interest both Persia and Europe had was keeping the Ottoman Empire at bay. Abbas the Great was aware of this and the power of his armed forces; one of the world’s largest mountain militaries and one where every man wore heels. As the relationship between the two powers developed, heels were quickly noticed by European royalties who subsequently adopted them.
Heels, up until this point, had had a long journey into the public consciousness and they underwent further modifications before they became the fashion statement we know them for. Early designs of European high-heeled shoes were strongly influenced by Persian styles. For instance, leather covering and a metal band on the heel were features of Persian heels that were later adopted by European shoemakers.
These high-heeled shoes were worn predominantly by wealthy men during the 17th century, symbolising their higher social status. The heels tended to be impractically high and made it difficult for the wearer to walk in, but this was part of the privilege; only someone who didn’t have to stand and work all day would be able to wear a shoe like that.
Setting the trend for opulent and excessive fashion was King Louis XIV of France. The king was a fashionista in the truest sense; favouring only the most luxurious of fashions and was a fan of heeled shoes. He can be seen in various heeled footwear in many of his portraits. As to why he was such a fan, rumour has it his height had something to do with it. At just 1.63 metres tall, high heels provided some compensation for his short stature.
Heels were soon considered to be a statement of high-class menswear. Notably, red heels again appeared as a style too; this time as a way of Louis XIV to keep tabs on the aristocracy that moved with the royal court at Versailles. He decreed that red heels were only to be worn by those who were in his favour, meaning wearing them was a way to show others where one quite literally stood with the king.
At the same time as kings tried to claim heels as a symbol of masculinity, women began adopting them too—much to the dismay and distress of many a man.
Women had long been deterred from wearing heels. Back in 1430 in Venice, a law had been passed that prohibited women wearing heels greater than 3 ½ inches, citing alleged miscarriages of women as the reason. The law wasn’t particularly effective with Venetian sex workers sporting 14th-century platform heels known as chopines that could reach up to 21 inches, which soon spread across Europe.
Later in the 1600s, however, women only started wearing heels when it became trendy to incorporate men’s clothing and elements of it into their fashion. In fact, before this, Queen Elizabeth I is thought to have been one of the first to have worn heels as a woman even before the trend picked up. She embodied a lot of typically masculine qualities at the time, as a ruler who wanted to be seen, or at least treated, as a man in many ways. For a shoe that has long been feminised in today’s culture, it’s interesting to note that the heel was first introduced into womenswear in a bid by women to make themselves look more masculine.
While women continued to wear heels, society still deemed them taboo. And as it turned out, the Venetians weren’t the only ones claiming to protect women’s bodies from heels; in 17th century Massachusetts, lawmakers sought to introduce acts that sought to equivocate wearing heels to witchcraft, with the same degree of punishment. It was early proof of the power of the high heel and how pervasive it had become.
From the 18th century onwards, high heeled shoes soon began to develop notable difference for men and women. As the Enlightenment movement crept up, encouraging intellect and rationale, men started to reflect this in their attire; favouring flatter and sturdier shoes, while women’s shoes were daintier and more ornate. Gradually, the differing fashions between the genders became more prominent; as clothes said less about social strata and more about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ styles.
Much of this had to do with the fact that notions of masculinity and femininity were being reappraised. Overt satirical choices like wearing heels and any form of ornamentation was seen as silly and ‘effeminate’, as fashion became more closely linked to practicality and work. Something like the high heel was anything but practical and its irreverence and excess became reflective of the way society began to treat women too, as individuals of whims and indulgence to which the male gaze could fantasise about but not treat seriously.
By 1740, men had stopped wearing heels almost entirely. Even women’s heeled shoes lost their popularity—as the French Revolution sought to equalise and do away with class signifiers—until around the 19th century.
Yet the heel still made a comeback; largely thanks to the rise of art photography and music. For women, sporting a heel became a veritable sex symbol as the camera lens carved out its own image of female sexuality.
And men, while subtle, continued to opt for shoes with a lifted heel throughout the years. Cowboys on the Western Frontier have been pictured in heeled boots since the mid 19th century and glam-rock icons such as John Lennon, David Bowie and Elton John helped popularise a heeled look as a statement of difference, glamour and subversion.
David Bowie was one entertainer celebrated for his fluid sartorial choices
There’s an argument to suggest that men never really stopped wearing heels. However, mainstream representation has often been limited to the entertainment sphere. In the 20th century, drag artists have been pivotal in helping popularise not just the heel but sartorial fluidity. There’s a gradual shift of men making fashion choices that once tracked as ‘feminine’, like earrings, makeup and dresses, says Expert in Fashion Stefania Jesi.
“For many decades, society imposed strict rules of dress society on men, as well as women, that allowed for no exceptions”, says Stefania. “As a result, social norms classified and held back personal identities. That’s changing now. I think that heels will become a must in the wardrobe of men who are part of creative and cultural environments, that have a great impact on the public and who want to celebrate genderless fashion and free expression”.
And so the heel marches on; a shoe that has survived thousands of years, and tens of thousands of men and women wearing it. It’s an eternal symbol of style but also endurance. Whatever happens next, it’s unlikely the high heel is going anywhere—no matter who chooses to wear one.
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