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Though they are more commonly worn by women today, high heels were originally made for men.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.