High heel shoes are today a form of footwear worn almost exclusively by women. Yet, the history of high heels shows us that this was not always the case. On the contrary, high heels were, at various points of time in history, worn by men as well. In addition, whilst high heels are worn today for aesthetic purposes, it has not always been so in the past, as it served practical purposes at times.
Whilst it is unclear when high heels were first invented, it seems that they were used by ancient Greek actors. The “kothorni” was a form of footwear worn from at least 200 B.C., which raised from the ground by wooden cork soles that measured between 3 and 4 inches (8 and 10 centimeters). It is said that the height of the shoes served to differentiate the social class and importance of the various characters that were being portrayed on the stage. Thus, this form of raised footwear served neither a practical nor aesthetic purpose, as it was a piece of garment worn exclusively by members of a certain profession, theater performers in this instance, when they were at work.
The next appearance of high heels can be traced to the Middle Ages in Europe. During this period, both men and women wore a kind of footwear known as pattens. The streets of many Medieval European cities were muddy and filthy, whilst the footwear of that period were made of fragile and expensive material. Thus, to avoid ruining these garments, both men and women wore pattens, which were overshoes that elevated the foot above the ground.
Whilst the patten was used mainly for practical purposes, another type of European footwear served both a practical and symbolic function. The chopine was a type of footwear related to the patten, and was popular amongst the upper classed women of Venetian society during the 15th to 17th centuries. It is said that the higher the chopines, the higher the status of the wearer, with some examples of this footwear reaching a height of 20 inches (50 centimeters). As one may guess, it was not exactly the most practical sort of footwear to be walking around in. This meant that the women who wore the chopine required servants to help them maintain their balance. Perhaps the display of wealth and status was not only displayed through the height of the chopine, but also by the fact that servants were needed just to assist a wealthy woman in the act of walking.
Whilst the patten and chopine both raised the wearer’s feet above the ground, they bore greater resemblance to platform shoes than high heels. To find footwear that is more similar to today’s high heels, one has to leave the streets of Medieval Europe and travel eastwards to Persia. It is unknown exactly when high heels were used in the East, but an image of a horse rider on a Persian ceramic bowl suggests that it was worn since at least from the 9th century A.D. High heels were used by Persian cavalrymen as they were highly effective at keeping the wearer’s feet in the stirrups. At the end of the 16th century and at the beginning of the next, diplomats were sent by the Persian Shah, Abbas I, to Europe to seek alliances against a common enemy, the Ottoman Turks. It has been claimed that the European aristocrats who saw the Persian high heels quickly adopted it as it was a symbol of masculinity, apart from its practical use for horseback riding, and as a status symbol.
By the 17th century, women were also wearing the high heel, as there was supposedly a craze in adopting male fashion for women. Whether this may be interpreted as merely a fashion craze or as a conscious effort on the part of women to appropriate male power and achieve equality is an entirely different matter to consider. Regardless, the male obsession with high heels would cease by the 18th century. The Enlightenment not only brought a change in the way men thought, but also in the way men dressed. Man as a “rational” being was reflected in his dour clothing. Thus, high heels, makeup, and extravagant clothing, which were deemed irrational, were abandoned.
Interestingly, women also eventually stopped using high heels, as they were undoubtedly an impractical form of footwear. This was not to be for long, however, as high heels made a comeback as early as the middle of the 19th century. Among the first people who embraced the invention of photography were pornographers. Models in photo shoots were apparently dressed in nothing but a “modern” (according to the standards of the day) form of high heels. This may be the beginning of the association of high heels with female sexuality. The rest, as they say, is history.
Republished with permission. Read the original at Ancient Origins.