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The Male-Dominated, Power-Hungry History of High Heels

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Italian courtesans wore insane chopines, adopted from the heels worn by aristocratic men. Photo: Getty Images
Italian courtesans wore insane chopines, adopted from the heels worn by aristocratic men. Photo: Getty Images

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At a restaurant a few weeks ago, I heard a woman remark that high heels were designed by men to stop women from running away from them. I wanted to run over to that lady and tell her that history extends further back than 1920, but I couldn't because, you know, I was immobilized by my stilettos.

Still, her take was simply not true. Not true at all. High heels were designed for men, worn by men, and actually had to be wrested away from men by women.

I'm aware many people don't love high heels. I'm familiar with the protests against them, namely, that they're uncomfortable. Personally, I would argue that, unless you're hiking the Appalachian Trail, a well-made pair of heels is hardly more uncomfortable than most other footwear—but really, everything fashionable is a little uncomfortable. Underwear is stupidly, outrageously uncomfortable. Pants are uncomfortable.

If comfort was the goal in how we dress, we'd all be running around in fleecy onesies like Teletubbies. It would be an awful, sexless, tasteless world. But then, I'm biased. I love high heels. They're fascinating historical symbols of power and wealth—and one thing that I don't think of them as being is particularly feminine.

Heels were intended to be an instrument of war, rather than one of seduction.

This is because they aren't. Or, at least, they certainly weren't intended to be. Depictions of high heels date back to Ancient Egypt. However, heels really became popular in 15th century Persia, where they were worn by male equestrians. According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator from the Bata Shoe Museum, "When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more easily." Heels were intended to be an instrument of war, rather than one of seduction.

Messengers from Persia began traveling to Europe, and they brought their heels with them. European male aristocrats may not have been shooting a bow and arrow while riding a horse, but they did realize that if you wore high heels, your feet would not be covered in horse shit, or, indeed, any of the muck you might find on the grounds of a Renaissance city.

Louis XIV and his red-soled heels. Photo: Getty Images

Heels also made people taller. This was especially impressive because height has always been considered a sign of dominance. People who reference Henry VIII often talk about how godly he seemed, as he stood 6'2" in the 1500s. Men wanted to look taller and therefore more intimidating; high heels weren't supposed to be pretty, they were supposed to be kind of scary. If you believe Dita von Teese, who said, "Heels and red lipstick will put the fear of god into people," they're still scary.

Sixteenth-century Italian courtesans soon began adopting high heels as a kind of sexy androgynous symbol. That made sense. Courtesans, the highest class of prostitutes at the time, had access to a lot of things "respectable" women didn't. They were the only women allowed to enter libraries. Since courtesans were supposed to please men, and pretty much interacted almost exclusively with them, they were often also supposed to like male things. This included reading, smoking, drinking, and wearing heels so they towered above everyone else.

Courtesans usually liked to accessorize these shoes with a man.

Access to traditionally male spheres of life was kind of the whole upside to being a courtesan. The downside was that you'd have to use a lemon half as a barrier to prevent pregnancy, you'd likely contract syphilis and be publicly shamed for it, and you might be burnt as a witch. (Though if you time travel back to the 16th century as a woman and don't want to be a virtual prisoner inside your own house, it's still not a terrible option, all things considered.)

And courtesans wore crazy high heels. Their chopines were sometimes ten inches tall. Courtesans usually liked to accessorize these shoes with a man. His job would be to support her as she walked through the street. It was generally one or two of her male servants who helped, but sometimes a courtesan would enlist a host of four or five powerful noblemen to use as human crutches. I guess that goes along with the whole, "Oh, high heels are so hard to walk in" argument, but it sounds awesome. I would definitely like to call up, say, four senators and tell them that today their job was to be my animate canes.

Just a bunch of heel-wearing dudes in the court of Charles II. Photo: Getty Images

All this did not mean that high heels stopped being worn by powerful men, any more than powerful men stopped reading or smoking when courtesans started doing the same.

In the 18th century, high heels were a bigger power symbol than ever before. Louis XIV who was a mere 5'4", loved high heels. It was he, rather than Christian Louboutin, who was the first to feature a red sole on the bottom of his shoes. He allowed the members of his court that he was closest with to wear similarly red soles. This, almost immediately, lead to problems with impostors painting the soles of their heels red to suggest they were closer to the Sun King than they actually were. These people were thrown out of court—it was an offense that was taken very seriously.

Courtesans usually liked to accessorize these shoes with a man. In the 18th century, high heels were a bigger power symbol than ever before.

Charles II liked the red sole look so much that you can see him wearing a pair of French-style heels in his 1661 coronation. Non-courtesan women also started wearing them around this period because, again, gender-bending clothing is cool. Certain people during the 17th century had an erotic fascination with women wearing trousers, as actresses might if they were performing one of Shakespeare's dual gender roles. More commonly, women began adding traditionally masculine elements like tricorne hats, epaulettes, military-style gold braid, and, yes, high heels to their outfits. Those women, like their male counterparts, were generally aristocrats.

Then the French revolution came. Democracy became fashionable and it started to seem unfashionable for anyone to tower over anyone else due to their social station. Flatter shoes were adopted universally and heels didn't make a comeback until the 19th century, when photographers of pornographic postcards realized that they made women's butts look great. It's because of those French postcards that high heels have become associated with women rather than men in the 20th century.

It's kind of bizarre when you think about it. Height is still considered a sign of desirability and dominance in men in a way it never is in women. It seems like men would stand to benefit more from wearing high heels, or at least looking taller (in one survey, 9 out of 10 women said they wanted to date someone taller than they were). But then, high heels have been in common use for over 600 years. In another century or so, we'll probably see them back on male feet again. Until then, you can ask some of your flat shoe-wearing male friends if they want to serve as a human crutch as you walk, because that's another tradition we could (and should) theoretically bring back.

Jennifer Wright is the author of It Ended Badly: The 13 Worst Break-Ups in History, due out fall 2015. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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