A History of High Heels


From rebellious clothing to wardrobe staple, high heels have existed since the 1400s, and over 600 years later they have become more than just a simple accessory.

Catherine de Medici, a 14-year old at the time, was supposed to marry the Duke of Orleans (who would later become the King of France). She decided because she was only 5 feet tall, she wanted something to allow her to be taller than her guests. The two inch heels that she wore on her wedding day cause quite a stir and spawned high heel shoes’ first fashion craze.

Throughout the 1600s, high heeled shoes were seen as a status symbol. The rich took to the high-heeled shoes because only those who were rich enough not to have to work could possible wear footwear as impractical as these. As the shoe feature filtered down to the unwashed masses, the heels on the shoes of the rich were made taller and taller to differentiate them further. An additional feature was added to differentiate the heels, but this time between those worn by men and the ones worn by women. The heels on men’s shoes were made bigger around while women had heels that were skinnier.

In 1791, Napoleon banned the use of high heels by both men and women but Marie Antionette, on the way to her execution in 1793 wore a pair of shoes with two inch heels to disobey Napoleon’s rules one last time.

In the 1950s, Christian Dior, a french fashion designer, worked with Roger Vivier, a shoe designer, to create a shoe with a long, narrow heel. The new style of high heeled shoe would go on to be known as the mother of all heels, the stiletto.

Today, the footwear industry is worth $48 billion annually and no longer seems like a passing trend.

History of high heels according to wikipedia:

Mediæval Europeans wore wooden-soled patten shoes, which were ancestors to contemporary high heels. Michelle Reyes, curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, traces the high heel to horse riders in the Near East who used high heels for functionality, because they helped hold the rider’s foot in stirrups. She states that this footwear is depicted on a 9th-century ceramic bowl from Persia.

It is sometimes suggested that raised heels were a response to the problem of the rider’s foot slipping forward in stirrups while riding. The “rider’s heel”, approximately 11?2 inches (3.8 cm) high, appeared in Europe around 1600. The leading edge was canted forward to help grip the stirrup, and the trailing edge was canted forward to prevent the elongated heel from catching on underbrush or rock while backing up, such as in on-foot combat. These features are evident today in riding boots, notably cowboy boots.

A great review of the history of high heel shoes by Maria Griffin from MSU:

Actually, high heeled/soled shoes go back way past Louis XIV, as a means of keeping out of the mud/muck/water/sewage, etc. If one reads descriptions of the hallways of even Louis XIV’s palaces, with people relieving themselves in corners, stairwells, and hallways,etc., it is easy to understand why men and women wanted to “rise above” what was on the floor or street.

They were common for men and women in China and Japan, based on painting, at least back to the 11th Century (being left on the doorstep of course). As with many things, what orginated as practical necessity was, for the middle and upper classes, turned into fashionable footwear. The French and Italians, as the dominate fashion centers, kept refining the high heeled shoe, creating some interesting shapes with the heel as the centuries went by. The infamous “spike” high heel was a 20th Century creation.

The Smithsonian has an interesting collection of footwear.

Here are some good videos about the history of high heels: