The History of This: High Heels

by Steven Arbuckle

Kittens are less than two inches tall and puppies are at least two inches tall and square. Spools are skinnier in the middle than they are at the ends. Mids are two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half inches, though some folks just call them high. And stilettos are five inches or taller – go any further than that, and you’re just asking for trouble.

This is the modern breakdown for high-heeled shoes, which we all know as a women’s fashion accessory. The idea is that by boosting the heel up from the ground, the leg appears longer and the woman appears taller. It accentuates the calf muscle, and brings a woman into a more upright posture that makes certain curves stick out even further than they would by themselves. And more than one person has noted that the way a woman is forced to walk in heels is rather fetching. There is no shortage of songs that reference the sexiness of high heels, and plenty of movies feature scenes where the camera lingers lovingly on the sight of a woman pulling on stockings and threading her toes into a pair of heels. And what are we to make of the research that links heels to a strengthening of the muscles of the pelvic floor, and a decrease in incontinence?

On the other end of the spectrum, the anarcho-punk band Crass, among others, have pointed to high-heeled shoes as a source of female sexual repression. Scientist Jarl Flensmark has pursued a hypothesis that speaks to a link between the wearing of heels and schizophrenia, citing that the disorder came to prominence at the same time and among the same social strata as the style of shoe.

So how surprising is it that heels were originally put on shoes for the convenience of men?

Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of Canada’s Bata Shoe Museum, points to a ceramic bowl from 19th century Persia that depicts a horseman wearing high heels as the earliest known example of this kind of footgear. Imagine riding into battle, nocking an arrow into your bow, then having to stand up, take aim, and fire, all while the horse continues on its bumpy, bumpy way. Having a block at the heel allows a rider to use a stirrup without the boot slipping all the way through, and even the modern American cowboy boot is still constructed the same way, for the same reason.

In the 1500s, royalty in Europe took to wearing stacked heels to make themselves seem taller and, perhaps, more important – this is where the term “well-heeled” came from, meaning a wealthy or high-class person. It was in the late 1700s that women’s heels began to overshadow men’s, and it has largely stayed that way until this day.

More recently, high heels waned in American culture as World War II raged, then became more popular as it ended. Heels lowered again in the 60s and early 70s, but the fashionably questionable 80s and early 90s saw them bounce right back. After another period of scarcity, high heels have become popular again, especially as status symbols, and for rounding out a fancy outfit.

And men are still wearing heels, too. Cowboy boots, engineer boots, and motorcycle boots all feature stacked heels. The Cuban heel and the footwear of flamenco dancers are still in evidence, and I myself own a pair of “Beatle boots”. Elton John is known for slipping on a set of heels, as is Prince. And where would 80s hair metal have been if not for huge coifs, tons of bandanas, and sky-high men’s boots?

And so the heel lives on. While podiatrists warn that they are dangerous, and counterculture types complain that they are holding us back, there are still plenty of ladies (and men) that embrace the sexy silhouette of a well-sculpted heel.