Art, Fashion, Religious Culture Wars

The Mystique and History of the High Heel

A high-heeled shoe is one in which the heels are elevated higher than the toes. This forces the body to arch at an angle, highlighting the wearers chest and buttocks. The paradoxical restraint delivered by a high heel shoe that shortens a wearers step due to the increase in heel height, is supposed to allow for greater movement but in actuality allows for the allure of a longer leg and greater height for the wearer. Shoes throughout the ages have been sign posts of class, wealth, gender, and ethnicity; The Japanese emperor Hirohito was crowned in 1926 on heels 30 cm in height and early Greek actors used platforms called kothorni of various heights to denote the social status of different characters.  The ancient Egyptian elite wore shoes of leather with laces and raised soles, while the majority of the populace went barefoot. This state of affairs continued across the ancient world and by the time of the Anglo Saxons, shoes were so important that the father of the bride would customarily present the groom with one of the bride’s shoes, symbolizing transfer of his authority over her. The bride’s shoe is thrown to the bridesmaids and the one who catches it will be next to marry. So much for bouquets!

It isn’t until 1533 and Catherine de Medici that the high heel as we know it began to take shape. Catherine was notoriously short and only about five feet tall. For her wedding to France’s Henri the II she wanted to impress the French court and chose shoes with two inch heels. This was a common height for high heeled shoes up until the 20th century. Catherine did start a trend in France with her new shoes and it was a common occurrence to hear the phrase that someone was ‘well heeled’ in conjunction with the rich. The French of both sexes wore high heels and they became so popular that Louis XIV wore heels decorated with battle scenes and as tall as five inches. It seems his cobbler was so clever and his creations so stunning that he was eventually accused of witchcraft. The trend of high heels was assisted by Madame de Pompadour who gave her name to a kind of high-heeled shoe that Marie Antoinette eventually wore to the gallows during the French Revolution. Eventually, Napoleon banished high heels in an attempt to show equality. At this time, the high heel took a backseat to populism. Heels were lowered, and replaced by a wedge with only one piece of leather where a heel would have been.

By the 1860’s fashion had made a comeback and women of the Victorian age once again donned heels. It became common place for people to talk about the allure of the arch of a woman’s foot being sublime. A high instep was said to be European and aristocratic. Perhaps most enlightening for modern readers would be the health promotion that accompanied the embrace of the high heel in the Victorian era. It was said to alleviate backache and stooping, while making walking less tiring. Many modern women, myself included disagree! I for one have worn tennis shoes throughout my career as a Massage Therapist, and now that I am in my senior year of undergraduate work, I am not looking forward to having to change my footwear now! It should not be surprising that during this era, the ‘lowest kind of foot’ was said to be found in Africans and some children’s fairy tales such as Cinderella, concerned themselves with foot fetishism.  Heels were also said to be a ‘poisoned hook’ with which a woman could snare an unwary male and the truly reactionary said a high heel resembled the hoofs of the devil.

At the turn of the 20th century, women’s hemlines rose in the 20’s and 30’s and with that rise came a new kind of shoe by the 1950’s. The Stilletto. A team assembled by Christian Dior,  “developed a low-cut vamp (the portion of the shoe that covers the toe and instep) Louis shoe with a narrow heel called a stiletto, which is the Italian word for a small dagger with a slender, tapering blade. First mentioned in London’s Daily Telegram on September 10, 1953, the exaggerated slender heel and narrowing of the toe equated sheer height with chic and strongly suggested phallic-erectile symbolism and sexual maturation”. By the 1960’s and 70’s platform shoes had become a new fashion statement worm by both men and women. First and second wave feminists were quick to assert that high heels were synonymous with oppression and that should violence erupt, a high heel wearing woman would have a difficult time getting away from an attacker. This trend of bucking fashion found common favor but began to be redefined in the late 1980’s. The redefinition was brief. This trend of embracing the high heel stumbled on the rocks of the 1990’s grunge movement that made everything alternative the rage. It wasn’t until the early 21st century, that fashion designers had women flocking to their doors again. Shows such as Sex in the City popularized shoes like Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin.

The shoes above are Christian Louboutin and are something I aspire to own! They remind me of old sumptuary laws which are wonderful sources for views on class and morals in the  societies who enacted them. The hint of red is a nod I think to these older versions of social harmony and a comment about our current consumer society. How divine that they come in such a lovely package! I think the jury is out about how shoes will be worn in the 21st century. Some models were duds in my opinion like these from Alexander McQueen .

Whatever the fashion industry dishes up in the coming years for foot fetishists, I can only think it can’t get any worse than these above. Gyms are still offering classes designed to help their wearers make the most of their high heels and the fashion choices for women are endless. The Mystique of the high heeled shoe remains a mystery to many but I hope not for everyone after today!



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