I’m 5’10”, or about 6’2” in a good pair of high heels. For some reason, though, guys don’t really wear heels. Why is that? Well, let’s dig into the history of the heel.
Heeled shoes have a long and distinguished history. The first example is from the 900s CE, and no, they weren’t worn on some banquet dance floor in the Middle Ages by court women. Instead, they were worn by Persian cavalrymen. The heel kept their foot locked into their stirrups, making it easier for them to ride, and most importantly, rise out of their saddle to shoot their bows from a galloping horse. They wore their heels to war.
In 1599 Shah Abbas I of Persia sent an emissary to the Western European courts of Russia, Germany, and Spain. He wanted to forge an alliance against his biggest enemy: the Ottoman Empire. It was this diplomatic mission that brought modern heels to Europe.
Aristocratic European men wanting to rock the manly look (and edge) of a Persian cavalryman, quickly adopted heeled shoes as a status symbol. The commoners soon followed, so, in response, the aristocrats cranked up the height of their heels—creating the high heel. A 4” heel was ludicrously impractical in the muddy streets of Western Europe, so it was a strong statement that the wearer was wealthy and important; no one who had to work for a living or walk any distance could get away with wearing such a stupid shoe.
Throughout the 1600s, high heels were a firm fixture of European court wear. King Louis XIV of France had a penchant for red heels. Charles II of England, despite being over 6’ to begin with, wore a pair to his coronation too. It was around this time that women started wearing them too.
In the 1630s, women’s court fashion went through a martial phase. They wore jackets with epaulets, cut their hair short, and, naturally, to complete the look, they wore the manliest of manly items: a pair of high heels.
Trip and Fall
Towards the end of the 1600s, high heels had diverged into distinct styles. Men’s heels were sturdier and blockier, while women’s had become daintier and higher.
These styles persisted into the 1700s but would soon lose favor due to two big cultural trends. First, the Enlightenment and the embrace of education and rationality led aristocratic men to give up over-the-top outfits and jewels—including their high heels. Instead, simple, practical clothes were in vogue. Men wanted to look as if they’d just stepped off their country estates. By the 1740s, men’s heels were firmly back at ground level.
Women’s high heels persisted a while longer, staying popular until the French Revolution in the 1790s. Aristocracy in general and aristocratic clothing in particular then fell out of favor—and with them, high heeled shoes.
Between the 1800s and the 1940s, high heels had occasional resurgences but never regained their former popularity. It took another martial event for that to happen: World War II.
This time, though, war would bring women’s heels into vogue. Bored soldiers missing the comforts of home stuck pin-up photos all over their barracks. Many of the pin-ups featured models wearing high heels (and little else) for aesthetic reasons, and thus heels became irrevocably entangled with femininity. After the war, the fashion made the jump from erotica to mainstream, and the modern women’s heel hasn’t really gone out of fashion since.
Heels, however, look to be making a unisex comeback. In the past three years, sales have been growing, and fashionable male celebrities, like Jonathan Van Ness, Sam Smith, Marc Jacobs, and Harry Styles, have all worn them—and posted about it on social media.
Though really, did men’s heels ever go away? After all, what are cowboy boots but a modern, heeled version of Persian riding shoes. And they’ve never gone out of fashion.