Around the County

History on heels — high heels, that is

Posted 7/16/19

What about those high heels, anyway? Years of wearing them certainly left me with a number of foot problems that I successfully ignored until a broken ankle a few months back. Now, physical therapy …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in
Around the County

History on heels — high heels, that is


What about those high heels, anyway? Years of wearing them certainly left me with a number of foot problems that I successfully ignored until a broken ankle a few months back. Now, physical therapy underscores 30-odd years of shoe-choice damage exacerbated by horse-related injuries.

Why did I wear them? Not only was it sometimes physically painful but it made my already excessive height more extreme. Imagine how ridiculous that was! I couldn’t even dance cheek-to-cheek without kicking off my heels, ruining a pair of expensive nylons and suffering sore feet as well as a sore head the next day.

Being a researcher by nature, the answer to the “why” question seemed likely to be found not just in mind bugs (which I wrote about earlier and was certainly part of the problem) but in history.

Google reminded me that high heels were once the providence of men, first appearing as a military invention. What, you say? Yup. The use of first the stirrup and then the heel to hold feet in those stirrups revolutionized warfare, giving the mounted fighter more stability on his steed and, thus, a significant advantage over his adversaries.

Inevitably, both boots and heels acquired decorations, the latter spreading from one type of battlefield to another — royal courts. The Persians did it first, adding decorated and colored heels to their extravagant male clothing displays. Thanks to an early bit of globalization, the fad caught fire and it wasn’t long before every courtier on two continents had to have them.

Check out portraits of nobility from St. Petersburg to London. Men displayed their legs — bowed, knock-kneed or knobby — below protuberant bellies adorned in satins, furs, and brocades embedded with gems. Peacocks had nothing on the male court attire for centuries, extravagance set atop equally ridiculous high-heeled pumps and boots. The mind boggles at scenes of men tripping daintily through the halls of Westminster or Versailles, the Hofburg or the Kremlin, their mink ruffs tickling their chins, vying with each other in ostentatious displays designed to announce their social status, impress each other, and, presumably, even attract women.

I can see the first two goals as achievable, but did any women really looked yearningly at the uncertain turn of a male calf, elongated by high heels and set off by silk hose? You have to wonder.

Maybe the men did, too, for we now come to The Great Male Renunciation! If you’ve heard of this before, you’re a better historian than I am. In the GMR, men tore off their finery (perhaps fearful of being mistaken for a nobleman and a candidate for the guillotine). Whatever. In an excess of egalitarian zeal, they not only kicked off their heels but adopted sober and homogenous dress.

Women, for their part, added elements of male dress to their own, including the heel. That did it. In a few generations the heel (aside for cavalry boots) became seen as impractical, frivolous, and effeminate, totally inappropriate on the male foot.

Pornographers, dealing in the dirty cards of the pre-digital era, gave the heel yet another image, posing their voluptuous subjects with bare bottoms and high-heel-clad feet. This, apparently, is the origin of the widely held belief that high heels equate to a sexual invitation.

Wow! Who knew.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that today’s woman who tippy-toes around in stiletto heels does so to titillate or to signal her availability. She may be ruining her feet for other reasons, like peer and fashion pressure, like showing that she’s rich enough to buy Jimmy Choos. Then again, not all women still wear heels. 

A recent comprehensive survey by your columnist — one hour of observation on Bent Street — yielded a sighting of only one pair of high heels. They were on a little girl of about 7. Now, that disturbed me. Heels on the foot of a little girl whose bones are still forming and ankle joints have yet to finish developing?

Back to Google I went. There I read posts and articles of mothers complaining that it’s difficult to find shoes for girls without heels. Apparently, this is the next iteration of the heel and the next frontier for shameless, profit-hungry shoe manufacturers and fashionistas.

But I was telling you about my Bent Street survey. None of you will be surprised to hear that sneakers dominated the footwear for both men and women. Sandals (it’s summer) came in second. Boots were third.

Comfort and practicality. Thank God for the common sense of Wyoming women.

Sad to say, though, we’re the exception and not the rule. History tells us that high heels may transition back to men, again, and in the meantime may cripple more women and girls, but they won’t disappear. Which ensures profits for the shoe industry and job security for physical therapists.

Speaking of which, it’s time for my exercises.