Standing TALL: The Curious History of Men in Heels

Explore the history of men in heels and the expression of power and prestige.

Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in HeelsBata Shoe Museum Toronto

Never before have a few inches mattered so much...

Today, the thought of a man in heels is met with disbelief and conjures up notions of transgression. However, it hasn’t always been this way. When heels were first introduced into Western fashion around the turn of the 17th century, men eagerly embraced them and they continued wearing heels as expressions of power and prestige for over 130 years. Even after heels fell out of men’s fashion in the 18th century, there have been moments when they have been reintegrated into the male wardrobe – not as a ways of challenging masculinity but rather as a means of proclaiming it. It in fact, there are some lifestyles where heels have remained central to expressions of masculinity and are worn without raising eyebrows; the rugged cowboy in heeled boots is the perfect example. For most men, however, even an extra inch of a pair of business brogues can provide highly destabilizing and call their masculinity and their judgement into question. However, given the advantages that height supposedly confers from higher pay to increased desirability as well as the long history of men in heels, the real question is why don’t the majority of men wear heels today? Indeed, the most curious thing about men in heels may be our current cultural distress over the subject. 

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of kings) by Firdawsi (d.1020); recto: Human a warrior of Turan approaches the Iranian camp; verso: text, Human challenges the Iranian chieftains (early 15th century)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

From the East

The origin of the heel remains to be discovered but it is clear that it was not a European invention. Heeled footwear only emerged in Western Europe around the turn of the 17th century but it has been worn for hundreds of years prior to this throughout Western Asia. Evidence for early Western Asian heels suggests a strong relationship to horseback riding and may have been connected to the innovation of the stirrup. The stirrup profoundly changed horseback riding and made military campaigns more effective, as it enabled riders to steady themselves dramatically improving the effective use of weapons such as the bow and arrow. The heel seems to have a further development of this technology as it allowed the wearer to hook his foot in the stirrup.

Allegorical representation of Emperor Jahangir and Shah Abbas of Persia from the St. Petersburg Album (ca. 1618; margins 1747–48) by Artist: Abu'l Hasan, Borders: Muhammad SadiqSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art


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.

Persian Riding Shoes (17th century)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Pierre Lombart, The Headless Horseman, engravings (1655/1715)British Museum


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.

The Persian association of heeled riding footwear and masculine might may have inspired the European fashion for men to wear heels.

French Wooden Box (1621)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

The Shoemaker (1632–1635) by Abraham BosseBata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Charles II (1630-1685) by Antonio Verrio (c. 1639-1707)Royal Collection Trust, UK

Power Heels

The court of French King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) set the fashion for expressing political privilege through refined dress including the wearing of elegant high-heeled shoe covered in red leather. The English also wore heels of significant height but as the century progressed, many of these heels became associated with more rugged forms of masculinity. In 1666, the English King Charles II (r. 1660-1685) started a new fashion for men “after the Persian mode” inaugurating the three piece suit but ushering in the demise of that other Persian-inspired accessory, the heel. However, before men abandoned the heel, it reached unprecedented heights. 

French or English Shoe (mid-17th century)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Recueil des modes de la cour de France, 'Homme de Qualité en Habit d'Esté' (1687) by Nicolas ArnoultLos Angeles County Museum of Art


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)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto

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.

Print "Habit de Cordonnier" (1693) by Gerard ValckBata Shoe Museum Toronto

Fear of Effeminacy

The distinctions between male and female heels at the dawn of the 18th century mirrored larger cultural concerns about appropriate behavior and dress for men and women. Enlightenment arguments promoted the ideal that men, even those of the lower classes, were uniquely endowed with rational thought, and that this capacity specifically made them worthy of political enfranchisement. Women, in contrast, were represented as being naturally deficient in reason and unfit for education, citizenship and control of property. Fashion was redefined as frivolous and feminine and the high heel, a principle artifice of dress, was abandoned by most men.

Italian Kid High Heels (1660/1700) by Creator UnknownBata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

James Maitland, 7th Earl of Lauderdale (1759-1760) by Sir Joshua ReynoldsArt Gallery of New South Wales

English Suits and French Heels 

Starting with Charles II’s efforts to simplify English men’s attire in the late 17th century, men’s fashion became increasingly restrained as the 18th century wore on. A uniform of sameness began to define men’s dress; men were literally discouraged from standing out from one another further encouraging the banishment of the high heel from men’s wardrobes. In France, Anglomania griped the French imagination and likewise, a marked simplicity entered the daily dress of Frenchmen. The term ‘red heels’ came to be used mockingly and fops, men overly interested in fashion including heels, became the focus of cultural criticism. 

Italian Papal Shoes (18th century)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Portrait of a Gentleman (c. 1800) by Hugh Douglas HamiltonThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Pantaloons to Pants

Early 19th century pantaloons were designed to create a long lean line. This was achieved by a strap at the hem that could be wrapped under the foot if the pantaloons were to be worn inside a boot, or slipped under the sole of the heeled footwear if worn over full length. The style was highly recommended to men of short stature as it allowed them to wear height-augmenting heels without criticism. The brown Hessian boot with its little heel and extravagant embellishment would have been perfect for wearing pantaloons ticked in. The black Hessian is almost completely flat-soled in keeping with the wider-ranging fashion. 

European Boots (1820-1840)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto

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.

The Cowboy (c. 1897) by Frederic RemingtonThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Going West 

By the middle of the 19th century, heels were almost completely banished from men’s fashion. The western frontier of North America, however, proved to be a place where the heeled riding boot could continue to have relevance. Indeed, by the second half of the 19th century, heeled boots would become central to images of heroic masculinity. The ‘opening’ of the west coincided with the rising dominance of manliness over refinement. Manliness was democratic suggesting success was open to those bold enough to embrace it. In the United States, these concepts spoke to national building and the vigor represented by frontier soldiers and men who ventured west helped to lay the foundation for enduring reverence for rugged individualism that was seen to be in stark variance with Old World elegance and inherited privilege. 

German Boots (mid-19th century)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

By Walter SandersLIFE Photo Collection

Cowboys and their Boots

Cowboys on the Western Frontier in the 19th century were a heterogeneous lot made up of new immigrants, recently emancipated slaves, Native Americans, Mexicans and ex-military men but they were united in their vigorous manliness. Out on the open range, these cowboys relief on their boots to make their living and early photographs show them wearing a wide range of styles. However, the cowboys who displayed a bit of swagger by wearing high heels were the ones who helped to transform the cowboy boot into the icon it is today.

American Boots by Tony Lama (mid-20th century)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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 (20th century)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Brochure "It Pays To Be Tall" (1950s)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Beatles (1964) by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Dandies and Peacocks

Heels returned to men’s fashion in the mid-1960s as part of the Peacock Revolution which advocated that men had the right – indeed the responsibility – to dress more flamboyantly in keeping with the natural order seen in the animal world. Flamboyant, however, did not mean feminine. The majority of men’s fashions, including heeled footwear, were considered to be reclamations of men’s styles from the past or borrowings from men’s fashions in other cultures. 

John Lennon's Beatle Boot (early 1960s)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

LIFE Photo Collection

To the Max

The heel reached unpreceded heights in the 1970s. On the street and in the disco, young men began sporting three inch heels; even businessmen began to wear slightly higher heels. Despite comments suggesting that these new heels were gender-bending, they were not borrowed from the female wardrobe. They were reclamations of historic heels a la Louis XIV and were touted as a means of bolstering confidence. As the social movements of the era, from women’s rights to civil rights challenged long held ideas about traditional male privilege, heels came to be used as a means of proclaiming masculinity.

Canadian Platform Boots (1973)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


'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 Milano (early 1970s)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

By Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

Fear of Height

Recently Western culture has shown extreme sensitivity to men increasing their height through artificial means. This fear comes at an interesting moment. A number of recent studies correlating height to success have resulted in the widespread message that height is discreetly linked to enhanced earnings, career advancement and desirability. Adding to these finding is the ongoing positioning of women’s high heels as supposed tools of female power. However, despite these findings, most men today do not wear heels. It seems that any status gained through augmented height is undermined by the risk of seeming effeminate. 

American Shoe Lifts (2014)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Gaultier, Jean Paul (1995) by Dave AlloccaLIFE Photo Collection

Men in Women’s Heels

Today, the stiletto is an icon of femininity that few men dare to wear. Some such as Yanis Marshall and Eddie Izzard have been seen as courageously transgressive but for the majority of men, wearing slender heels is still not an option. An exception is the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes events which allow men to sport bright red heels in the effort to end violence against women. However, as the name of the charity suggests, that these are her shoes, not his. 

American Heels (2014)Bata Shoe Museum Toronto


Although men have worn heels over the last 400 years, none of them were inspired by women’s fashion. For men attempting to dress femininely, however, the stiletto is idea. This pair of size 16 is big enough to allow a man to step into a woman’s shoes.

Rad Hourani Unisex Boots (2015) by Rad HouraniBata Shoe Museum Toronto


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.

Credits: Story

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
For more information, please visit our website at: or find #BSMstandingtall on social media.

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Copyright © 2017 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada

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