The Mystery of the Stiletto Heel Designer

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Words by Louise Vinciguerra

American Heels (2014)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto

The three contenders who took women’s footwear to new heights

Today, the high-heeled shoe trots across every fashionable street in the world, not to mention the catwalks. But high heels also have a long and complex history; did you know that heeled shoes date back to 9th-century Persia and soldiers in heeled riding boots? Later, the trend was popularized by Catherine de Medici who, at 4 foot 9 inches, wanted to stand a bit taller for her wedding day, thus bringing the the high heel to a mass audience.

But its a long way from these kinds of heels to the one that dominates today — the stiletto (meaning 'knife' in Italian). Characterized by a thin, long steel rod, metal tips, and a height that can reach up to 25cm, the stiletto is very much a 20th-century invention. But the question remains – who invented it?

There are three designers who, in their own ways, can all lay claim to the title of 'Stiletto Inventor'. So take a look at the designers who (literally) took the heel to a whole new level.

Salvatore Ferragamo

At the age of 16 Ferragamo moved from his hometown of Avellino, Italy to the USA to perfect his craft of shoemaking. Shoemaking was not only an art form for this Italian designer, but soon proved to be a science. His aesthetic was clean lines and simple shapes, and he found inspiration in non-traditional materials such as nylon and cork.

One of his innovative materials was steel, which is often regarded as the definition of the 'stiletto', meaning 'dagger', or 'knife', in Italian. Ferragamo began designing steel heels as early as the 1920s, making him a contender for the inventor of the stiletto.

American Heels, 2014 (From the collection of Bata Shoe Museum Toronto)

Though he may not be the only father of the stiletto heel, he is recognized as the (patented) inventor of the cage heel and is also credited with reviving the cork wedge.

Crocodile pump (1959/1960) by Salvatore FerragamoMuseo Ferragamo

Shoe for Marilyn Monroe, Salvatore Ferragamo for Salvatore Ferragamo S.p.A. (From the collection of Museo Salvatore Ferragamo)

Known as the ‘shoemaker to the stars’, Ferragamo adorned the feet of Eva Peron, Lauren Bacall, Sofia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and countless more, all at a time when stilettos started making their fashion debuts. Ferragamo may not have been the sole inventor of the stiletto, but he certainly knew how to publicize them by placing them on the feet of the right people at the right time.

#WeWearCulture | Museo Salvatore Ferragamo: How did the stiletto become the height of fashion?Museo Ferragamo

André Perugia

Born in Nice, France to a family of Italian heritage, André Perugia had been designing women’s shoes since 1909. His contributions to the footwear world were many, including the contemporary wooden sole and a patent for a removable heel. Like Ferragamo, he too is sometimes referred to as the 'father of the stiletto', but he similarly doesn't quite earn that title. He did get close though.

Pumps (1920s) by André PerugiaThe Kyoto Costume Institute

Pumps, André Perugia, 1920s (From the collection of The Kyoto Costume Institute)

Perugia was one of the first shoe designers, during the modern patent era, to experiment with height and slimness – two major factors that would play a large part in defining the stiletto.

Roger Vivier

Roger Vivier is a native Parisian who was known to have been a regular at Moulin Rouge, and this playfulness and sense of fun can be seen in his designs. He has created shoes for Queen Elizabeth II, the Princess of Iran, and designed for Christian Dior.

Shoes (1955–63) by Roger VivierPeabody Essex Museum

Shoes, Roger Vivier for Christian Dior SE, 1955-63 (From the collection of Peabody Essex Museum)

If you are a fan of the thin rod steel-as-a-heel stiletto, then you have Roger Vivier to thank for that. This French designer created the Aiguille heel which has appeared in more than one episode of Sex and the City. He upped the heel game when he increased its height from 6cm to 8cm, naming him the father of the modern-day stiletto heel. But it’s not simply a piece of steel and height that gives Vivier the stiletto award. His craftsmanship merged height with comfort – the true testament to the perfect stiletto.

So, who actually can take credit for inventing the stiletto? The verdict is still out as to whether that honor goes to Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Vivier and André Perugia. There is no easy answer to this question, as each one of these designers have made significant contributions towards the birth of the stiletto heel, but the final verdict may be Roger Vivier who set the criteria of steel heel and height – giving us a 20th-century fashion marvel.

Shoes (Fall 2008) by Christian LouboutinThe Museum at FIT

Shoes, Fall 2008, Christian Louboutin (From the collection of The Museum at FIT)

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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