In modern culture and fashion, wearing high heels is almost exclusively a ‘feminine’ thing. Today men may feel self-conscious about wearing heeled shoes, and shoes that do add height for men are usually referred to as ‘lifts’, ‘cubans’ or 'elevator shoes' rather than 'heels'. In light of this, many people may be surprised to learn that historically it was actually men who started the trend of wearing high heels.
The History of a Heel
Heeled shoes began strangely for their utility, with the most ancient examples coming from the male horse-riders of Persia. There, men would wear heeled shoes to have better grip on the stirrups, helping them stay upright if they needed to ride a horse and fight at the same time. It is for similar reasons that cowboy boots today still sport a heel. There is also evidence that there was limited wearing of heeled shoes in Ancient Egyptian and Roman society, the later case being one of the few in antiquity were it was females wearing the heels (most usually female prostitutes).
Heels in the Medieval Era
It was not however until the end of the medieval era when heels began to come back into fashion, spreading in the 16th century from the Near East to Italian and then French royal courts. Heels were seen as fashionable for the same reason that wigs and heavy fur were also fashionable at the time: they were expensive and had almost no practicality. Wearing unpractical clothes was the ultimate status symbol in the 16th and 17th century, as it showed that you were so rich as to not care how encumbering your clothes were.
Heels as Unisex Fashion Items
Eventually heels became a unisex fashion, as women of the time began to imitate male dress stylings until eventually heels were common among all the aristocracy: they were even a common sight in paintings of monarchs like Charles II of Britain and Louis XIV of France. However at the same time, there began a slow but uncompromising change in male fashion. Men began moving towards the 18th and 19th centuries trends of wearing less opulent clothing, dropping jewellery and brightly coloured fabrics to begin the edge towards the monochrome lounge suits of today. When men began to abandon heels, so did women, and heeled shoes were consigned to history for another few centuries until they began to surge in popularity again in the early 1900s.
The French Influence
The reason that heels remerged as a woman’s shoe is multifaceted, but it can be boiled down to the anecdote that they became popular in French pornographic postcards in the early 20th century. Heels were seen as enhancing the natural curve of the female body, and were assumed to be more suitable for women’s ‘dainty’ feet. While heels made several attempts at a comeback for men during the 20th century (most famously in the ‘Beatle Boots’ made popular by Liverpool pop sensations The Beatles in the 1960s), there was still a noticeable difference. While men could wear short and thick ‘cuban’ heels, thin heels were seen as female only.
So will heels as a fashion statement ever make a comeback for men? While men still clamber to add inches to their frame, they want to do so in a less obvious way. Women generally want to add height visibly, whereas men would rather do so discreetly. However that could change as all fashions do, and one day we might just see men walking down the streets in heels once again.