High heels, which have become a classic symbol of female sexuality, go back a long time in history. From Ancient Egypt there are depictions of both upper-class males and females wearing heels, probably for ceremonial purposes. Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, and a leading authority on the history of footwear, traces the origin of the high heel back to Persian horse riders in the Near East. The footwear helped the men to stay in the stirrups when riding at speed. This is why cowboy boots have the form they do.
The person generally credited with establishing the high heel as a fashion item was the vertically challenged Catherine de Medici. In 1533, at the age of 14, she was about to marry the powerful Duke of Orleans, who would later become Henry II, King of France. She felt insecure in the arranged marriage knowing that she would be competing for her husband’s affections with Diane de Poitiers the Duke’s favourite, who happened to be more attractive and significantly taller her. She needed to find a way to dazzle the French. Desperate situations require desperate solutions and Catherine decided to don two-inch heels for the ceremony. They proved a great success and high heels soon came to be associated with privilege. By 1580, heels were popular for both sexes, and a person who had authority or wealth was often referred to as well-heeled, while those suffering hard times were described as down at heel. Louis XIV was one famous devotee, wearing intricate heels decorated with miniature battle scenes. They were often as tall as five inches. The king decreed that only nobility could wear red heels and that no one’s heels could be higher than his own.
With the Enlightenment there were changes in how male and female clothing was perceived. Men were seen rational and educable, whereas women were irrational, sentimental, and uneducable. Dress began to reflect this dichotomy. Semmelhack describe it thus:
“Men began to wear more dour clothing. They gave up makeup and highly ornamented clothing and heels. Those accoutrements became signifiers of femininity—especially the high heel, since it’s an irrational form of footwear, unless you are on a horse. So it became associated with femininity, and then was eventually linked to female desirability.”
However, after the French Revolution the high heel, with its aristocratic associations, went out of fashion both for men and women for more than half a century. The invention of the camera was the catalyst that led to its return. Indeed, Semmelhack sees a link with the rise of pornography.
An important landmark was the invention of the stiletto in the post-World War II period. Before this most heels had been carved out of wood. Christian Dior in collaboration with shoe designer Roger Vivier played a key role in popularising them. Stilettos, whose name means little dagger in Italian, could be made of solid steel or a very hard, thin plastic – an exceptionally thin heel could now support the weight of a woman without breaking.
Despite the rise of feminism high-heeled shoes are still in vogue today. TV programmes like Sex in the City and movies like The Devil Wears Prada reflect this ongoing popularity.
In his book The Economic Naturalist, which I have featured a number of times before in this blog, Robert Frank looked at a number of life’s mysteries from an economic perspective. One question he asked is this: why are women willing to endure the discomfort of high heels? They are uncomfortable and make walking more difficult. What’s more, prolonged use can injure the feet, knees and back. Some women even go under the knife to shorten their toes or inject Botox so that their feet fit more comfortably into a pair of stilettos
So why do women keep wearing them? The answer is of course that aesthetic reasons. Not only do they make women taller, high heels force the back to arch, pushing the chest forward and the buttocks rearward, accentuating the kind of exaggerated female figure which seems to attract men.
However there is a paradox here. If all women wear high heels any advantage is cancelled out. The relative height distribution is the same, and no one appears taller than if all had worn flat heels. A similar example would be if everyone stands up in a sports stadium, no one will see the action better. But they will be more uncomfortable. Women in the 21st century have more shoe choices than ever before. If they could decide collectively what shoes to wear, all might agree to a non-aggression pact and forgo high heels. But because any individual can gain advantage by wearing them, such an agreement is almost impossible to maintain. As a man I am rather glad men don’t have to wear high heels. A man’s height is also important and you can imagine a world in which men competed in this way. I really can’t seem myself in five-inch stilettos.