High Heels Were Popular Among Men Before Women

King Louis looking fabulous with his long hair, intricatley patterned dress, tights, and high heels.

King Louis looking fabulous with his long hair, intricately patterned dress, tights, and high heels.

Today I found out men wore high heel shoes long before women.

The first high heel wearers are believed to have been Persian horseback warriors sometime around the ninth century. The extended heel was reportedly developed specifically for riding, to keep the rider’s foot from slipping out of the stirrups. It also helped to hold the rider steady when standing up in the stirrups and shooting arrows.

A group of Persian diplomats visited Europe in 1599 to recruit allies to help Persia defeat the Ottoman Empire. A craze for Persian culture developed as a result and Persian-style high heeled shoes were adopted enthusiastically by Western European aristocrats.

The shoes became a status symbol and the heels were extended to make the men look even taller. (This is thought by many etymologists to be where the term “well heeled”, meaning “wealthy” originally came from.)

Just as the 1980s had notorious shoe collector Imelda Marcos, the 1600s had a rabid shoe collector and trend setter in Louis XIV of France. While he was a powerful leader, his height left something to be desired at five feet, four inches tall (1.62 m), which was slightly below average in his day. (The average height for men in France at the time, in modern international units, was 5 ft. 5 inches or 1.65 m.  Note: Contrary to popular belief, Napoleon was not short; he was two inches taller than the average in his day.)

A king being slightly shorter than average wasn’t ideal for his ego, so Louis took measures to make himself look taller, sporting four inch heels, often decorated with elaborate battle scenes. Eventually, he switched to having red heels on all his shoes and decreed that only the upper echelons of society could have matching red heels. It became a simple matter of looking at the color of a man’s heels to see if he was in the king’s inner circle.

Not to be outdone, women of the 1600s started wearing heels as a way of showing their equality. Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and author of Heights of Fashion, a History of the Elevated Shoe, says the rage of that period in parts of Europe was for women to dress and act like a man. (It should be noted, though, that at the time men’s outfits by today’s standards were extremely effeminate, a-la King Louis XIV’s photo above.)

You had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits. They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel — it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits.

As usually happens, high fashion is adapted into more affordable versions and filters down to the less fortunate.  The lower classes started to wear high heels. The elite responded by making their heels increasingly higher to maintain the distinction of being upper class- the higher the heel, the more expensive the shoe typically was. They also began to differentiate heels into two kinds- fat heels for men and skinny for women.

Eventually, men got away from the heel almost completely to show their distinction from women. Since the late 18th century, men’s shoes have had primarily low heels, except for cowboy boots and some shoes worn by rock stars, who occasionally have a propensity to wear effeminate garb similar to before the “Great Male Renunciation”, when men switched from wearing jewelry and elaborate outfits with highly decorated cloth to drab, darker colored simple clothing. Basically, when Western men on the whole stopped trying to beautify themselves, starting at the tail end of the 18th century.

For a time, women also drifted away from the heel as it truly wasn’t practical, particularly on old muddy or cobblestone style streets where heels were nearly impossible to walk in. They weren’t gone long, though. The heel came back into fashion in the mid-19th century with the advent of photography.  Why? As seems to happen often when new technologies are introduced, pornographers are always among the first to take advantage and they were among the first to embrace photography. This pertains to high heels in that they often dressed models for risqué post cards and other photographs in nothing but a “modern” (for that time) version of the high heel.

Since then, high heels have come in and out of fashion repeatedly, except for in the porn trade, where they’re seemingly a constant. Lower heels were preferred during the late 1960s and early 70s. In the 1980s and 90s, high heels made a popular comeback. Various styles of heels have taken their turn on the runways as well, such as the block heel of the 70s, the mule and the famous stiletto that’s been popular in the 50s, 80s, and today.

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Bonus Facts:

  • King Louis XIV may have dressed fabulously but one Russian ambassador once stated “His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.”  Like so many of his time in that part of Europe, Louis almost never bathed.  In Louis’ case, his physicians advised him to abstain from bathing to maintain proper health.  Louis himself also said he found the act of bathing disturbing.  Rumor has it, in his adult life, he supposedly only bathed twice. More here: Why Bathing was Uncommon in Medieval Europe
  • Queen Isabel I of Spain also once claimed she only bathed twice in her whole life, when she was born and when she was married.
  • Shoes that raise both the heel and the toes equal amounts are not considered to be high heels, but platform shoes.
  • A 2008 study suggests that wearing high heels may improve the muscle tone of a woman’s pelvic floor, thereby having a potential positive effect on female stress urinary incontinence.
  • Other studies show that long term wearing of high heels can cause sciatica, ingrown toenails, arthritis in the knees, lower back pain and plantar fasciitis, so… hmmm…
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  • Great article, to whoever says makeup is for women and mock men for it. They (mostly men, but also some women) should be mocking women for wearing heels and boots, as they used to be for men. 🙂
    But, what happened to the comments? I read “18 comments” but I can’t see any.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Antome: It’s a remnant of a feature of this particular wordpress theme where when people have a particular service installed on their site that contacts my site when they link to an article, it counts it as a comment. But as this adds no useful information, I’ve removed the code that displays those. I also recently figured out how to disable that altogether so that my site no longer listens to those pings, which helps in future articles, but not so much in old ones where they’ve already registered and appear in the comment counter.

    • Sophia Richardson

      Educated PEOPLE that know that the world DID NOT start in Europe. Asia and Africa wore makeup and wigs 3-6 thousand years before Europeans.

  • Sophia Richardson

    Only if you believe that the world started in Europe, which it did not! You might want to do more research about Ancient Asia and Africa before making these stupid claims.

  • Even though society declared men quit wearing high heels from the latter part of the 18th century, there were still men wearing them in private and/or at secret gatherings of underground activities. With so few men in high heels and with society declaring them for women only, people got the impression that most men had lost the taste to wear heels. However, the truth is that men still have the taste to wear heels, in spite of the social declarations. When the stiletto came into existence, their allure was effective for men with such taste to wear them also. The promoted social attitude caused these men to be seen as violating womanhood, so they became subjected to social ridicule and persecution for their natural human ability and perspective. What people wear is a natural right for each person to choose for themselves. Under the systems of social status, this personal right was taken away by those who set themselves up as having the power to choose what others were allowed to wear for their station in society. This tradition has been cast in stone as the way things work, but breaking the laws of nature has consequences and civilization is paying for it. People aren’t free to choose the attire they desire to wear because of the social standards and stereotyping that has been put in place to control what people wear. This is another way of enslavement and having to be dependent on someone else’s determination as to what they prefer. Each human (at least by adulthood) has the ability to know what they like and how they want to express themselves by the attire they choose. It is only fitting for adults to choose from the items of apparel available, the adornments they choose to accent their appearance.

  • A really enlightening and interesting article. Today it is mainly women wearing high heels, which I think is a pity. I would like to see more men in high heels, it would be so nice.

    • Douglas Rothbaler

      I love wearing them and I must admit, that I walk very naturally in them. I wish that it was more socially acceptable for men to do it.