Beautiful, provocative, sexy – high heels may be all these things and more, but even their most ardent fans wouldn’t claim they were practical. They’re no good for hiking or driving. They get stuck in things. Women in heels are advised to stay off the grass – and also ice, cobbled streets and posh floors. And high heels don’t tend to be very comfortable. It is almost as though they just weren’t designed for walking in.
Originally, they weren’t.
“The high heel was worn for centuries throughout the near east as a form of riding footwear,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. Good horsemanship was essential to the fighting styles of the Persia – the historical name for modern-day Iran.
“When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped him to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more effectively,” says Semmelhack.
At the end of the 16th Century, Persia’s Shah Abbas I had the largest cavalry in the world. He was keen to forge links with rulers in Western Europe to help him defeat his great enemy, the Ottoman Empire.
So in 1599, Abbas sent the first Persian diplomatic mission to Europe – it called on the courts of Russia, Germany and Spain. A wave of interest in all things Persian passed through Western Europe. Persian style shoes were enthusiastically adopted by aristocrats, who sought to give their appearance a virile, masculine edge that, it suddenly seemed, only heeled shoes could supply. As the wearing of heels filtered into the lower ranks of society, the aristocracy responded by dramatically increasing the height of their shoes – and the high heel was born.
In the muddy, rutted streets of 17th Century Europe, these new shoes had no utility value whatsoever – but that was the point.
“One of the best ways that status can be conveyed is through impracticality,” says Semmelhack, adding that the upper classes have always used impractical, uncomfortable and luxurious clothing to announce their privileged status. “They aren’t in the fields working and they don’t have to walk far.”
When it comes to history’s most notable shoe collectors, the Imelda Marcos of his day was arguably Louis XIV of France. For a great king, he was rather diminutively proportioned at only 5ft 4in (1.63m). He supplemented his stature by a further 4in (10cm) with heels, often elaborately decorated with depictions of battle scenes.
The heels and soles were always red – the dye was expensive and carried a martial overtone. The fashion soon spread overseas – Charles II of England’s coronation portrait of 1661 features him wearing a pair of enormous red, French style heels – although he was over 6ft (1.85m) to begin with.
In the 1670s, Louis XIV issued an edict that only members of his court were allowed to wear red heels. In theory, all anyone in French society had to do to check whether someone was in favour with the king was to glance downwards. In practice, unauthorised, imitation heels were available.