The High-Life

High-heeled shoes are a popular accessory in women’s fashion. They make the wearer appear taller, emphasise the calf muscle and accentuate the length of the leg. There are many different styles and can be found in cultures all over the world. In some cultures, high-heeled shoes have significant meanings, which have changed throughout history, and it was not always women that wore them.

In an online exhibition put together by French fashion expert Maude Bass-Krueger, the history of men wearing high-heeled shoes is looked at through a series of paintings from galleries all over the world. The High-Life: A History of Men in Heels reveals the varied cultural meanings and symbolism of high-heels within the past 1000 years. From high social stature to fashionable tastes, history proves that high-heels were originally intended for men.

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Dish with Rider

High heels date back as far as the tenth century. This dish, which can be seen in Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, was excavated from Nishapur, Iran and has been dated to the time of the Samanid Empire (874-1005). It shows an armed figure upon a horse surrounded by birds, crosses and other Arabic symbols. It is not certain what the decorations mean but the main illustration provides an insight into the armour of a Samanid soldier.

The soldier appears to be wearing some form of chainmail to protect his body from enemy swords. Upon his head is a helmet and on his feet is an early version of a riding boot – a boot with heels. As well as fighting with swords, soldiers fought with bows and arrows, which required the use of both hands. To do this without falling off their horses, soldiers needed a sturdy saddle with stirrups to keep their legs in place. A heeled shoe helped the soldiers keep their feet in the stirrups more than a flat shoe, which could easily slip out. It is thought the modern cowboy boot derives with this 10th-century idea.

By the 17th century, it was the norm for Persian riders to wear one-inch heels, regardless as to whether they were on horseback or walking. Horses were expensive, therefore, owning one was a symbol of wealth. Subsequently, the heeled shoes signified the wearer had money and power. Evidence of these shoes can be seen in a 17th-century version of Mūsā Nāma (The Book of Moses) by Mulana Shāhīn Shirazi, a compilation of illustrated books of the Bible (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Although it was originally written in Judaeo-Persian in 1372, an illustrated copy dating to 1686 can be found in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

One particular page of the illuminated manuscript shows an early episode in the life of Moses. The book combines Jewish, Muslim and Persian legends, however, it is clear this particular image represents the discovery of the baby Moses floating on the Nile in a basket. Pharoah’s daughter, who discovered the basket, is kneeling by the river. Behind her are two male Persians, evidenced by their facial hair, wearing expensive silk robes embroidered with gold. Their shoes feature the customary one-inch heel that was worn by the rich at the time the illumination was made.

High-heeled culture eventually made its way to Europe during the 17th century. The Persian Shah ordered his soldiers to travel to Russia, Germany and Spain to forge relationships with foreign leaders. With them, they brought items from the East, which sparked “Persia-mania” in Europe. People were intrigued and began to desire Persian art, Persian fashion and Persian shoes. Heels became a symbol of masculine strength, wealth and military valour amongst European aristocrats.

Evidence of Persian influence on Europe can be seen in the oil painting The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector’s Cabinet, which hangs in The Walters Art Museum in Maryland, USA. Believed to be a collaboration between Hieronymus Francken II (1578-1623) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), the painting shows the joint rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, Archdukes Albert (1559-1621) and Isabella (1566-1633), visiting a collector’s cabinet. These type of constkamer (gallery) paintings were popular at the beginning of the 17th century, particularly in Antwerp where this painting is believed to have been produced.

The painting shows a large room full of various forms of art and visitors, including Albert and Isabella. As well as Flemish paintings and sculptures, there are many examples of plants, animals and minerals, for example, a couple of small monkeys and exotic flowers. Of course, the greatest evidence of Persian influence is the footwear of male visitors. Whereas women covered up their legs and feet with long, heavy skirts, 17th-century male fashion emphasised the legs with tight, coloured stockings to emphasise the shape of their calves and thighs. The high-heeled shoes added to the length of the leg and men drew attention to them by their posed stances.

The most famous male wearer of heels in Europe was most likely King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France, also known as the Sun King. During his reign, men wore heels to show they were upper-class and wealthy. The lower classes could not afford such extravagant shoes, nor were they practical for certain workplaces. By 1670, so many of the elite were competing for the higher heel, Louis passed an edict that stated only nobility could wear heels.

“Half inch for commoners, 1 inch for the bourgeois, 1 and ½ inches for knights, 2 inches for nobles, and 2 and ½ inches for princes,” were the new regulations for heel length. Women were also appropriating the heeled-shoe, which led to the added rule that men only wore thick heels and women wore skinny ones.

Most portraits of Louis XIV were full length and showed off his legs and high-heeled shoes. One painting, which hangs in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, emphasises the magnificence of the royal family. Either painted by the Baroque painter Hyacinthe Rigaud (1659-1743) or someone in his workshop, the state portrait details Louis’ haughty expression, his elegant stance, his ceremonial robes, and, of course, his high-heeled shoes. Usually, shoes were all one colour, however, Louis wore white shoes with a red heel. The colour showed that Louis was rich and powerful and he only allowed those in his favour to wear red heels. When looking at paintings of the 18th-century French aristocracy, a glance at the colour of their shoes reveals who Louis trusted most.

British artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) demonstrates the differences between men and women’s high heeled shoes in his comic paintings Before and After. The shoes are clearer in the first painting, in which a man in red breeches is trying to lure a woman into his bed. The man’s shoe is much broader and sturdier than the woman’s, whose shoe is narrower and more ornamental. The man’s heel is also a lot lower than the shoes men previously wore. The style of shoe was gradually becoming more feminine and, by 1730, most British men had stopped wearing heels altogether.

Heels continued to be popular in France for a bit longer, however, the French Revolution in 1789 put an end to the aristocratic high heel. Before then, in 1770, Britain had introduced an act of parliament that applied a penalty to the use of high heels. The act also applied to hooped skirts, false hair and cosmetics.

Heels came back into fashion in the 1860s, however, only for women. The invention of the sewing machine meant shoes could be produced quickly and cheaply, allowing women from all classes to wear heels.

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Western Boots

Although European men no longer wore heels, certain lifestyles around the world considered heels to be a practical form of footwear. Animal herders on ranches in North America, for example, took a leaf out of the Persian calvary’s book and added heels to their boots to help keep their feet in their stirrups. Cowboy boots, as they later became known, were a brief fashion fad in the late 20th century, however, they were originally made to protect the cowboys as they went about their everyday lives.

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma owns several pairs of cowboy boots, for example, a pair owned by Orvon Grover “Gene” Autry (1907-98), a rodeo performer nicknamed The Singing Cowboy who went on to star in many television shows. Originally, cowboy boots were individually made and varied in style depending on the culture. Although Autry’s boots feature decorative stitching, they probably do not have any cultural significance and he would have worn them when singing on stage rather than when riding.

Traditional cowboy boots were devoid of laces, which sometimes adorn modern versions since they could easily get caught on plants and so forth. The boots were usually made of leather, which protected the majority of the lower leg. The heel, which was over one inch high, could easily hook over the stirrups and keep the legs in place when riding at speed on the ranch. Later, the heels were lowered to make the boots practical for both riding and walking.

During Queen Victoria‘s (1819-1901) reign, her shoemaker made a special boot with a low heel that she could wear when either walking or riding. The fashion caught on and became a prominent style until the onset of World War One. Usually made in King’s Road, Chelsea, the boots became known as Chelsea Boots.

Legend has it that in 1961 when two members of The Beatles, John Lennon (1940-80) and Paul McCartney (b.1942), were shopping in Chelsea, they spotted a pair of Chelsea Boots and commissioned four pairs with a Cuban heel. This style was slightly higher than the 7.5 mm continental heel and soon became The Beatles’ signature look. Now known as the “Beatle Boot”, the boots became popular with both male and female singers and fans during the 1960s and early 1970s. The following Punk movement saw a rapid decline in the style, however, since 2000, the boots have once again been growing in popularity.

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David Bowie

David Bowie (1947-2016), the glam rock singer, pushed gender fashion boundaries by wearing all sorts of high-heeled shoes. By the height of his career, the history of high-heels had been forgotten and they were considered to be female-only shoes.

Bowie’s choice of shoes originally complimented his androgynous alter egos, such as Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom. Rumour spread that Bowie was homosexual or gender fluid, which was still frowned upon at the time. Bowie denied the rumours but later admitted he was bisexual. His eclectic choice of clothing made him a fashion icon, particularly amongst those who were non-binary gender. Bowie also encouraged an entire generation to accept those whose sexuality or gender did not conform to social norms.

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Prince, 1986

Other music artists followed Bowie’s lead and began wearing high heels on the stage. The American rock band Mötley Crüe is one example. Known for their outrageous clothing and heavily applied make-up, the band members also wore extreme high-heeled boots. The American singer Prince (1958-2016) is also remembered for his choice of footwear. Being only 5’3″ tall, Prince wore specially built shoes with a 4″ heel to make him appear taller. Throughout his career, he had around 3,000 pairs of high-heeled shoes made to his measurements.

By the 1990s, male high-heels were associated with a rough, rocker aesthetic. In general, men consider heels to be part of women’s fashion and it is only the more outlandish male celebrity that would dare to wear them. Yet, cowboy boots are distinctly masculine, so why is it unacceptable for men to wear heels in other situations?

Today, many male shoes have a small heel but what they do not realise is this is a descendant of the high-heeled fashion of the 17th-century. Gender stereotypes have prevented men from wearing anything higher for fear of being accused of homosexuality. Although people are much more accepting of different forms of sexuality, there is still a huge difference between male and female clothing and footwear.

Who knows what the future holds for the high-heel? Fashions and fads come and go. Perhaps men will be wearing heels again in the not-so-distant future, after all, the male heel is still very much part of some cultural identities.