The earliest recorded instance of heeled shoes comes from tenth century Persia. Mounted soldiers wore shoes with heels to make it easier to keep their feet in their stirrups, as the heels would catch the back of the stirrup’s tread and stop their feet from sliding in and out. This same use can be seen to this day with cowboys and other jobs that involve riding horses.
Most armies in the premodern era consisted entirely of men, and thus what is today a clothing item largely associated with women actually finds its origin among men. How is it then that heels spread beyond cavalrymen?
Functional military technology and tactics are usually picked up by the militaries of allies and enemies alike, thus the practical footwear of Persian cavalrymen did not go unnoticed by their peers. Mounted soldiers in other parts of the world also began incorporating heels into their attire for the advantages they brought. However, heels did not become a mainstay of European fashion until emissaries of the Shah Abbas the Great were sent west on a diplomatic mission. Soldiers wearing heeled shoes accompanied these delegates, and nobles in the various countries they visited took to this and other Persian clothing innovations.
High Fashion: Heels
Because of this, heeled shoes were first worn outside of combat by nobles, some of whom were (at different places and times) warriors themselves. Before the invention of cars, horses were one of if not the most esteemed land-based methods of travel. Equestrians, knights, whatever they were called, cultures with both warriors and horses often gave an especially high status to mounted soldiers. Heels were originally associated with cavalrymen, so wearing attire emblematic of them was meant to recall their lauded position in society. Additionally, horses were quite expensive to maintain, and thus beyond the warrior symbolism, heels also implied the wealth of the wearer.
Notably, it was also fashionable in seventeenth-century Europe for men to show off their legs. Both men and women wore hose, often tight legwear similar to leggings, and men, especially nobles, liked to show off the shape and musculature of theirs. Heeled shoes accentuated this already existing trend, and so noblemen took to it for this reason as well.
Gender Norms and Public Perception of Fashion and Heels
Around this point is when women came into the picture. Norms come and go and change over time. This too is the case with gender norms, style being one obvious consequence. Today, on average, shorter hair length is perceived as being more masculine while longer hair length is perceived as being more feminine. However, this is just a culturally reinforced opinion, a norm rather than a fact. Plenty of cultures do not uphold this norm and make no gendered distinction regarding hair length, and for a brief period so too were heels an androgynous style. Increasingly during the eighteenth-century though, women’s shoes (both heeled and not) became narrower, more ornamental, and less utilitarian due to contemporary fashion trends. During this period heels went from being a masculine sign of strength and wealth to a non-gendered court fashion to a feminine fashion statement. Of course, men and others still wear heels, but a linguistic distinction arises in English between high heels and flat-heeled shoes. In fact, men originated heels, and they never stopped wearing them. Instead, what changed was our perception of heels, what they symbolized, and who they were supposedly for.
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