Explore the history of men in heels and the expression of power and prestige.
Europeans knew about the heeled footwear worn throughout the ‘Orient’ well in advance of its adoption in the West. Curiosity about the dress of Others had long piqued European interest and Near Eastern dress specifically had had a profound influence on European fashion. Books on ‘Oriental; dress which included images of heels became popular in the 16th century and actual examples of heeled footwear found their way into Europe as souvenirs brought back by travelers.
17TH CENTURY: PERSIAN RIDING SHOES
This pair of Persian riding shoes features leather-covered heels. Early European heels were also leather-covered and may have been inspired by Persian models. In addition, Persian heels were breasted meaning that the leather used to make the sole of the shoe is extended along the front-facing part of the heel, another detail found on early European heels. The metal banding on the heel, typical of Persian design, was not adopted by European shoemakers.
MEN IN HEELS
Although Europeans were aware of Near Eastern heeled footwear, they only became interested in wearing heels at the turn of the 17th century. This fashion in the West coincided with the rise of Persia under the ambitious Shah Abbas I (r. 1588-1629) and the increasing European interest in Persia as a trading partner and an ally.
As tensions increased between the Ottoman Empire and Europe, Shah Abbas I and his mounted military – the largest cavalry in the world – captured the European imagination.
FRENCH WOODEN BOX, 1621
Extant footwear from the early 17th century is very rare, but depictions of shoe are more easily found and offer insight into footwear fashion. This carved wooden box dated 1621 depicts an early heeled shoe with a low, leather-covered heel similar to Persian examples. In addition to the low-heeled shoe, the decoration on the box also includes depictions of shoemaking tools suggesting that it was made for a shoemaker’s guild.
MANNISH WOMEN & MEN'S HEELS
Just as European men began wearing heels, women’s fashion took on a masculine air. Trendsetting “mannish women” were the focus of ridicule. They were accused of having their hair cut in manly styles and were lampooned for wearing military-inspired accessories, including broad-brimmed hats ornamented with plumes, carrying weaponry and wearing boots with spurs. It appears that heeled footwear was another means by which women masculinized their attire in the early 17th century.
THE SHOEMAKER, 1632-1635
In this print a ‘mannish woman’ is begin fitted for a type of ‘manly’ shoes called slap-soles. Heels were impractical off the horse and sank in the muck. To correct this some men wore their heeled footwear slipped inside separate overshoes that looked like flat-soled mules, others wore shoes with extended flat soles pieces. The slapping sound made by the extended sole as it hit the heel when their wearers walked, loudly announcing them and declaring with every step that they wore high heels. The Shoemaker by Abraham Bosse, 1632–1635.
FRENCH OR ENGLISH SHOE, MID-17TH CENTURY
This small shoe dates to middle of the 17th century and was most likely made for a well-to-do boy. The fact that the wearer was male is suggested by the shape and type of heel. Stacked leather ‘polony heels’ were popular on men’s footwear at this time. That the child was well-off is indicated by the height of the heel; its marked impracticality helped to declare the wearer’s privilege. The heel is also painted red in keeping with the fashion of the day.
ENGLISH RIDING BOOT, TURN OF THE 18TH CENTURY
As the 17th century wore on, the type of heels worn by men expressed two distinctly different forms of masculinity. Leather-covered heels suggested refinement, while stacked leather ones connoted action and were commonly found on men’s riding boots. This thigh boot denatures a high stacked leather heel and was clearly designed to be worn in harsh riding conditions. The use of hard, thick, jack leather provided a great deal of protection while the stacked leather heel would have been of use to the rider keeping his foot in the stirrup.
In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, the wearing of high red heels was a signifier of political privilege; only those with access to the court were supposed to wear them. The fashion predated Louis XIV but its exact origin and relation to power has not been established. The early Christian emperors of Byzantium wore red shoes as signifiers of power. The pope assumed the wearing of red shoes after the East-West Schism in the 11th century which created the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches. Perhaps the association of red footwear and the right to rule may have informed the politicization of red heels in the court of Louis XIV.
ENGLISH MULES, 1690-1715
This pair of men’s mules features high flared heels in keeping with turn of the 18th century men’s fashion and would have been worn at home as part of a gentleman’s undress. Men and women wore distinctly different heels by the end of the 17th century. Whether stacked or leather-covered, men’s heels were typically broad and sturdy. Women’s heels, in contrast, were most often leather-covered and very narrow.
As the 17th century wore on the type of heels on men’s footwear expressed two distinctly different forms of masculinity, the refined man of elegance and the man of action. Leather-covered heels came to be worn by men at home or formal settings while stacked leather heels were common on men’s riding boots and other plain, hardworking footwear. Women’s fashion favoured covered heels and although clear formal differences emerged between men’s and women’s heels—men’s grew high and were sturdy while women’s tapered to increasingly narrow points—by the middle of the century, the covered heel smacked of refinement, a feature that would eventually damned it in men’s fashion. The stacked leather heel, however, would live on as a signifier of rugged masculinity. Italian Heels, late 17th century.
ITALIAN PAPAL SHOES, 18TH CENTURY
In addition to being viewed as effeminate, the high heel was criticized as being an affront to god in the early 18th century. Heels artificially increased height and therefore went against divine design. This pair of red silk shoes featuring appropriately low, red heels is said to have been worn by a pope in the first half of the 18th century.
ENGLISH SILK SHOE, 1760-1780
Despite the loss of the high heel in men’s fashion in the 18th century, low-heeled shoes of brocaded silk ornamented with glittering buckles or large bows continued to be acceptable for court dress. The occasional man’s heel even continued to be highlighted by a flash of colour such as this shoe which features a pink leather-covered heel.
EUROPEAN BOOTS, 1820s-1840s
Male height was closely linked to ideals of masculinity in the 19th century and heels could be worm to increase stature if used discreetly. The 1830s guide to men’s fashion The Whole Art of Dress devotes a section to the challenges faced by men of shorter stature and advocates for heels provided that they are concealed under trousers, “…made very long, even to touching the ground, and strapped. Oh! What a transformation is here, my countrymen, in a diminutive man!” It would have been a shame to hide these boots under pants but their true beauty lies in the decorative nail work done on their shoe.
GERMAN BOOTS, MID-19TH CENTURY
19th century men’s boots were divided between sleek and sturdy, privilege and practical. Men of means wore refined and polished boots likened to the long tradition of equestrianism while the boots worn by laborers were rough and utilitarian, designed for durability. This pair of German boots is very similar to those worn on the Canadian and American frontiers. Indeed many new immigrants headed west after arriving in North American bringing with them their well-made and hard-wearing boots.
AMERICAN BOOTS BY TONY LAMA, MID-20TH CENTURY
From dime novels and Wild West shows to Hollywood Westerns, the cowboy symbolized unfettered freedoms and self-reliance in the 20th century. Although 19th century cowboys first splurged on ostentatious boots after reaching the railheads at the end of a long cattle drive, it took Hollywood and dude ranches for cowboy boot with its pointy toe and low slung heel to finally take shape. This pair of Tony Lama boots reflects the fashion for finery from the use of lizard skin at the toe to the high, stacked leather heel.
AMERICAN PACKER BOOTS BY JUSTIN BOOTS, MID-20TH CENTURY
Packer boots, like the more iconic pull-on cowboy boots, originated on the frontier and were also worn for horseback riding. They evolved from the 19th century lace-up boots and allow wearers to customize the fit. Like other cowboy boots, packer boots feature high heels and are commonly embellished with embroidery. This unembellished boot was made by Justin Boots, one of the oldest cowboy boot makers dating to 1879.
AMERICAN BIKER BOOTS, MID-20TH CENTURY
The heeled biker boot, or engineer boot, became popular with bikers after WW2. Groups of young veterans began to gather together drawn by their mutual love of motorcycles and by the late 1940s, biker clubs were being established throughout North American. The biker offered an updated version of the cowboy and his sartorial codes, likewise, spoke to unfettered freedom.
HIGH AND MIGHTY
In the first half of the 20th century, male stature became a cultural focus. World War I had increased anxiety about preparedness for war and spurred interest in genetics as it related to fitness and strength. Pseudo-scientific ideas promoted Darwinian concepts of survival of the fittest and height was linked directly to strength as well as sexual attractiveness. In this milieu, heels for men became problematized and men who wore them, the focus of ridicule. Despite this, attempts were made periodically to reintroduce the heel into men’s fashion. According to Western cultural ideals, men are ‘supposed’ to be naturally tall. Wearing heels only highlights perceived shortcomings, but lifts, or inserts that can be hidden inside one’s shoes, can be used covertly. In the 1950s height was linked to success in business as this pamphlet promoting elevator shoes suggests. American, 1950s.
JOHN LENNON'S BEATLE BOOT, EARLY 1960s
When the Beatles became popular in the early 1960s, they stood at the forefront of the Peacock Revolution, a movement in men’s fashion which sought to reclaim the privilege of extravagant dress. Their signature look included ‘mop-top’ hair, tight fitting suits, and the now famous ‘Beatle boot.’ These boots were typical Chelsea boots popular in men’s fashion since the 19th century with the exception that they featured a significantly higher heel borrowed from male flamenco dancers. This boot was worn by John Lennon.
CANADIAN PLATFORM BOOTS, 1973
The Toronto shoemaker Master John made these men’s platform boots complete with 5.5 inch high heels, appliqued stars, and a veritable landscape in leather. In the 1970s, some men followed the lead of rock stars in adopting lavish personal adornment and elevating shoes cultivating a persona at once dandyish and hypermasculine.
ELTON JOHN'S PLATFORMS, 1972-1975
'70s musicians like Elton John strutted on stage in outrageous outfits and glittering high heels. This pair of stage-worn shoes feature heels reaching 7.5 inches in height. This was made possible by the addition of 5 inch thick platforms under the forepart of the foot. In the 1970s, men favored footwear with distinct heels rather than shoes with solid platforms which in the history of Western Fashion, have always been feminine. These shoes were worn by Elton John.
AMERICAN PLATFORM HEELS BY THOM MCAN, EARLY 1970s
In the early 1970s, men’s fashion saw a return to traditional garments such as the three-piece suit, albeit with slightly exaggerated features such as wider lapels and tight, form-fitting flared pants. Men were encouraged to use accessories, such as high-heeled shoes, to express their individuality. The most popular form of footwear remained the traditional lace-up but like the three-piece suit, it was updated by the addition of high heels, platform soles and a wide variety of non-traditional colors and patterns.
AMERICAN SHOE LIFTS, 2014
According to Western cultural ideals, men are ‘supposed’ to be naturally tall. Wearing heels only highlights perceived shortcomings, but lifts or inserts that can be hidden inside one’s shoes can be used covertly. This pair of lifts from today is customizable allowing the wearer to choose how high he will go.
RAD HOURANI UNISEX BOOTS, 2015
Will the heel ever become a non-gendered accessory? In recent years, celebrities such as Lenny Kravitz and Prince along with Kanye West and a few other fashion-forward men have been willing to take chances wearing footwear with visible height, but not without garnering criticism. Montreal-born fashion designer Rad Hourani, famous for having the first unisex collection at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week often puts his models, both men and women, in heels. Hourani’s high, blocky heels remain borrowings from the male rather than female wardrobe by his designs do reflect the increasing gender fluidity in our current society and suggest perhaps someday we will no longer talk about men’s heels or women’s heels, but instead will simply refer to them as heels.
Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada
Now view now. Curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack. Exhibition catalogue: Semmelhack, Elizabeth. Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels. Toronto: Bata Shoe Museum Foundation, 2015
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