Heels have perhaps been the most constant feature on the fashion scene for over 400 years. Customers’ demand for higher and higher heels has also been the biggest challenge for their creators. Over the centuries, shoemakers have devised different solutions to elevating footwear. It was not until the mid-20th century – when the metal shank, the arch support and the steel spike through the centre of the heel were invented – that height could be achieved more easily. The most stratospheric heels, so far, of 17cm – including a thick platform – were on sale on the high street in the early 2010s.
It is worrying then that the maximum heel height to avoid causing lifelong damage to the wearer should apparently be a mere 6cm. Above this, and all the weight is projected on to the front of the foot, unbalancing the wearer, creating calluses, bunions and toe clawing, shortening the calf muscles and the Achilles tendon, and increasing risks of osteoarthritis and back problems. And those are only the long-term complications – just standing upright and somehow moving forward can be a more immediate challenge. Still, there are heels from the 1750s that rise to over 10cm, or an infamous pair of 1890s heels that measured 12cm. It’s obvious that comfort and practicalities have nothing to do with this obsession.
The heel originated as a practical and functional feature, and perhaps surprisingly it was men who started the trend. For centuries, men from western and central Asia had been wearing heeled footwear, enabling the foot to sit securely in the stirrup while riding, assisting their equestrian skills and fighting ability. Associated foremost with military might and masculinity, heels were enthusiastically adopted by European men during the second half of the 16th century. However, heels soon became purely fashionable, and upper-class women and children took to wearing them. Heels were of course alluringly impractical: their tendency to sink into the mud and to limit mobility served to declare the wearer as belonging to the upper echelons of society, with no concern for such normalities of life as working or indeed walking.
There was even a period when men in heels were considered sexy. In the coronation portrait of Charles II by John Michael Wright of about 1661, the king is wearing white ankle boots with astonishingly high red heels. But Charles is exuding power, masculinity and overt virility – and he was known to be lucky with the ladies. By 1700, though, there was a clear gender division in heels. Men’s had become lower, square and bulky, while women’s had gone slender and high. Since then, high heels have become the prime sartorial symbol of femininity.
Today, some women do express a sense of power when wearing heels, in the knowledge that many men like them. However, most men are not able to tell the difference between a pair of heels from Primark and a pair of Jimmy Choos. So, if wearing heels were intended purely to gain men’s approval, women could save a lot of money. But it is the Choos, Manolos or Louboutins women want. It is the pleasure of knowing that they are wearing the most desirable shoes available, and the satisfaction that an exclusive circle of fashionistas would, of course, recognise the shoes’ origin and share in the sense of secret privilege. It is also how such shoes make the wearer feel – the intense awareness of one’s body and how the gait and deportment change. But equally important, and deeply embedded in our psyche, are the historical connotations. The wearer of elaborate, luxurious and high-heeled shoes has a privileged and leisurely lifestyle.