Dish with Rider (9th or 10th century) by UnknownPergamonmuseum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
High-heeled shoes were first worn in the 10th century as a way to help the Persian cavalry keep their shoes in their stirrups. Since then, men's heels have gone through varied cultural meanings: symbolizing high social stature, military prowess, refined fashionable taste, and the height of 'cool'.
Without further ado, we'll let the men strut their stuff on the catwalk of history...
1. Killer Heels
Persian soldiers were the first to discover that heeled shoes helped their feet stay in their stirrups and gave them the stability they needed to shoot their bows and arrows.
This dish, excavated from Nishapur, Iran, shows a soldier from the time of the Samanid Empire (874-1005) in an early version of a heeled riding boot.
The modern cowboy boot derives directly from this 10th c. tradition!
Mūsā Nāma (The Book of Moses) by Mulana Shāhīn Shirazi (1686) by Scribe: Nehemiah ben Amshal of TabrizThe Israel Museum, Jerusalem
2. The New Power Heel
By the 17th century, one-inch heels were the norm for Persian riders, on and off their horses. Since owning horses was a symbol of wealth, heeled shoes came to signify money and power.
Here, two Persians in rich robes embroidered with gold, silk pants, and high heels discover Moses floating down the Nile in the basket. The illustration, from a 17th c. manuscript of the Book of Moses, melds Jewish, Islamic and Persian traditions and imagery.
The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector's Cabinet (circa 1621-1623) by Hieronymus Francken IIThe Walters Art Museum
3. Flaunting Comes into Fashion
At the end of the 17th c., the Persian Shah sent a delegation of soldiers to forge relations with foreign leaders in Russia, Germany, and Spain. “Persia-mania” became fashionable and European aristocrats adopted heels as a symbol of virility and military prowess.
17th-century male fashion was all about emphasizing the legs: high heels, tight, colored stockings, and loose, uncollected britches all helped emphasize men’s shapely calves and thighs.
Male portrait sitters like the Archduke Albert, pictured here visiting a collector’s cabinet of curiosities, almost always posed in stances that proudly showed off their legs and heeled shoes!
Portrait of Louis XIV (after 1701) by Hyacinthe RigaudThe J. Paul Getty Museum
4. The King of Heels
Louis XIV was perhaps the most famous wearer of heels in history. Under Louis’s rule, the higher and redder the heel, the more powerful the wearer. In 1670, he passed an edict that stated that only nobility could wear heels.
The red heel was symbolic: it showed that its wearer was rich enough not to dirty his shoes and that he was powerful enough to crush his enemies underfoot.
The Sun King only allowed those in his favor to wear red heels. You can tell who is in his good and bad graces in court paintings by looking at the color of men’s heels!
Before (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum
5. Putting the Shoe on the Other Foot
Shoes became increasingly gendered throughout the 18th century: women’s shoes became narrower, more ornamental, and the heels higher, whereas men’s shoes became broader and sturdier. Consequently, men stopped wearing heels around 1730 as a reaction against their perceived feminization.
This painting by the English artist William Hogarth from 1730 shows the growing difference between men and women’s shoes. Although the young male lover’s shoes still boast a small heel, it is already lower than the woman’s, and the shoe broader, sturdier, and less delicate.
Western Boots circa 1950 (1950) by unknownNational Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
6. Heels Continue to Ride High
The French Revolution in 1789 put a definitive end to the aristocratic usage of male heels. However, some lifestyles still accepted the wearing of male heels. The cowboy is a perfect example. A modern update on the 10th c. Persian cavalry heel, the cowboy boot is as masculine a heel as they come in today’s world.
The angled, rounded heel is also called a “Cuban heel,” in deference to the style’s Hispanic heritage (Flamenco dancer’s shoes, for example).
Beatles (1964) by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection
7. Mop Tops and Chelsea Boots
The Beatles helped popularize the Cuban heel in the 1960s and 1970s. “Beatle boots,” as they were called, were a variant of the Chelsea boot: tight-fitting, ankle-high boots with a sharp, pointed toe and Cuban heels.
Collecting card:The Beatles (1960s) by T.C.G.The Strong National Museum of Play
Legend has it that, in October 1961, John Lennon and Paul McCartney saw a pair that they liked in a Chelsea boutique and commissioned four pairs with a Cuban heel to suit their new public image.
LIFE Photo Collection
8. Breaking Ankles, Breaking Boundaries
David Bowie famously pushed the boundaries of gendered fashion throughout his career. He was known for wearing all manner of heels, from sky-high stilettos to platform shoes, as seen here in a photo from Life Magazine in 1987.
David BowieLIFE Photo Collection
Bowie’s alter-egos - like Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Major Tom - brought androgynous fashion onto center stage. Heels, dresses, makeup, and sex appeal helped him feel “superhuman”.
Bowie was a fashion icon at a time when homosexuality and gender fluidity were still taboo. He helped an entire generation learn to accept non-binary gender, heels and all.
Motley CrueLIFE Photo Collection
9. Men who Rocked the Heel
Motley Crue may have sung about women who were “Hell on High Heels,” but they could have been talking about themselves.
By the 1990s, heels, particularly in the form of the Cuban heel, had come to symbolize a certain kind of rough, rocker aesthetic.
But the cowboy-wearing-heels dichotomy begs the question: if heeled boots can be seen as the epitome of masculinity for the tough cowboy type, then why aren’t heels more culturally accepted beyond the cowboy symbolism?
Men generally stopped wearing heels when they became a staple of women’s fashion in the mid-18th century. Whereas men’s heels once symbolized power, wealth, and masculinity, today they tend to push the boundaries of binary gender norms. From the Beatles and David Bowie, to Motley Crue and Prince, the male heel is still very much part of all of our cultural identities.
By Maude Bass-Krueger