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The History of High Heels (It's Not What You Think!)

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You don’t have to be a fashion expert to have a basic understanding of footwear. Chances are, if you were to ask anyone older than the age of five, they’d tell you that heels are for women. It is also likely that they’d be confident that this has always been the case. However, like so many other things we take for granted, the gender divide associated with heels is largely the product of a historical accident. In fact, if you asked people several centuries ago to tell you who heels were for, they would have told you an entirely different story.

That’s right, ladies: if your Tinder date had arrived at your doorstep four hundred years ago, you wouldn’t have been the only one with sore feet.


Part of the reason men were the ones rocking heels was an issue of functionally. They’ve been helping horseback riders stand up in their stirrups since the Persians started doing it way back in the day (we’re talking 800s here). However, they’ve also had fashionable implications for both men and women. For men, the goal was to convey their power. Height has remained a relatively unchanged standard of attractiveness for men across history, so it isn’t surprising that men were the first to try to look taller. Women, on the other hand, wanted to make their feet appear small and dainty.


The most important heel-wearing agenda was shared by both genders. Heels were designed to communicate status and wealth in both men and women. Wearing inconvenient shoes has been one of the many visual indicators that aristocrats around the world have adopted throughout history (like pale skin or long nails) to show off their prestigious place in society. Heels are pretty impractical if you’re trying to work in a farm or walk down an unpaved road, so donning them proved that the wearer did not ever need to perform manual labor. In fact, heels became so exclusive in France during the 17th and 18th centuries that King Louis XIV ended up restricting the use red heeled shoes to members of his court alone. (In other words Christian Louboutin is a copycat—or perhaps a history major.)


The French Revolution eliminated heels from fashion for a while, as former aristocrats tried to lay low (literally) by wearing flatter shoes. In the mid-19th century, heels made a comeback, as upper class women filled the newly paved boulevard streets to shop, eat and be seen. This time, heels were exclusively seen on females. Though men have abandoned elevated footwear over the last few centuries, high heels remain an item of clothing tied closely with ideas of luxury and class for women, just as they have for half a millenium.

The history of heels should remind us all that the style conventions we take for granted in the present day are, as always, products of the past. Similarly, things we consider inherently “masculine” or “feminine” are cultural creations that have changed and can continue to change over time. Who knows? Maybe we’ll see boys tottering around in stilettos again one day.

What do you think, collegiettes? Should shoes be allocated for specific genders? What about clothes in general?


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