Both Men And Women Have Worn High Heels Throughout History

Could you imagine being a soldier riding a horse into battle wearing a pair of stilettos? As crazy as that may sound, it’s nearly historically accurate - except stilettos weren’t invented for another 1,000 years. 

Though they are more commonly worn by women today, high heels were originally made for men. High heels have enjoyed a largely unisex appreciation spanning many centuries and only became female coded in the last 300 years. Throughout history, the public opinion on how these fashionable yet painful shoes should look and feel and who should wear them has vacillated. 

High heels are an evocative symbol of power today. While these elements have remained consistent dating back to their early days, they also represented many more things: independence, social standing, self-importance, masculinity, and strength. Heel wearers were lauded for their fashion sense and despised for their perceived arrogance. 

As frivolous as dress shoes might seem, the origin of high heels is a microcosm of Western gender relations throughout the last millennium.

  • 900s: High Heels Are Used In Horseback-Riding Cultures To Keep Feet In Stirrups

    900s: High Heels Are Used In Horseback-Riding Cultures To Keep Feet In Stirrups
    Photo: David Roberts / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The first known high heel was worn by Persian men in the 10th century. They were neither decorative nor stylish, but they served a utility purpose: gripping the stirrups as they rode their horses.

    This provided better control and the ability to ride closer to the horse. Heels were especially useful during wartime as the added control allowed the rider to remain steady on the horse and keep his hands free to access and deploy his weaponry. 

  • 1500s: High Heels Are Worn By Courtesans

    1500s: High Heels Are Worn By Courtesans
    Photo: Maurice Quentin de La Tour / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    High heels were especially popular among one specific group throughout the 16th century: courtesans. The highest caste of harlots, courtesans were the predecessor to the high-end escort. 

    They enjoyed privileges that were not available to most other women, let alone other workers like them. They were allowed to enter libraries and keep company with high ranking men. They were known to smoke, drink, and wear high heels to appear “elevated” above other women, and also because the men enjoyed what they saw. 

    They were the women who commonly wore the dramatically high heel, often using male servants and noblemen as a human crutch. 

  • 1500s: Aristocratic Women Wear Heels To Indicate Status

    The chopine platform shoe popular with women throughout the 16th century took heel wearers to unbelievable heights, with some shoes clocking in at over 22 inches tall. To keep from falling over, the aristocratic women would often use their maids as a crutch.

    This was, understandably, a tremendous public health hazard. Many thought the bodily damage and potential miscarriage was worth it; and while no one could see the shoes, the real marvel was in the dazzling length of the skirt. The long skirts were meant to display wealth, as onlookers were scandalized by how much the extra fabric must have cost. 

    Despite the finer shape of the heel, the high heel that followed the chopine was actually more balanced. 

  • 1600s: Persian Migrants Bring Heels To Europe, Where Men Wear Them To Appear More Formidable

    At the turn of the 17th century, Persian Shah Abbas I sojourned to Europe to seek diplomatic assistance in defeating the Ottoman Empire. Abbas and his entourage visited Russia, Germany, and Spain, resulting in a boom of interest in Persian goods and aesthetics. Aristocratic men quickly adopted the high-heeled shoe, valuing its projection of virile masculinity.

    Whereas the Persian soldiers and noblemen used heels out of necessity, they were initially considered formidable and donned for their appearance. 

  • 1700s: King Louis XIV Introduces High Heels With Red Soles To The French Court

    1700s: King Louis XIV Introduces High Heels With Red Soles To The French Court
    Photo: Hyacinthe Rigaud / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The first half of the 18th century was the peak of the men in heels movement. Louis XIV of France, also known as the Sun King, reigned over France for 72 years. Standing at 5’4,” King Louis was rather arrogant, to say the least. The Sun King moniker came from his deeply held belief that he was the center of the universe, and that France revolved around him.

    Since Louis was a statistically below-average height man, and fancied himself as monumentally important, he was all about a high heel. He was known for the emblematic red-soled heel, predating Christian Louboutin’s red-bottom heels by 200 years. 

    Plebeians were allowed to emulate him by wearing high heels, but only those in his court were permitted to wear the red soles. Doing so without prior authorization was grounds for punishment and being thrown out of court.

  • 1700s: Men's Heels Become More Broad And Sturdy, While Women's Become More Decorative

    1700s: Men's Heels Become More Broad And Sturdy, While Women's Become More Decorative
    Photo: Jean Francois de Troy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    After a few centuries of a uniformly chunky heel, the design split off into distinct gendered categories. Returning to the original utility purpose of the shoe, the men's heel became more broad and thick. In contrast, the women’s heel became more tapered and served as a decorative garment. This shift would signal the impending end of society’s acceptance of the unisex high heel.