Looking at the history of European fashion, the high heel is not only one of the strangest inventions ever made but is also probably the only accessory to have undergone a ‘gender transformation’. The origin of heels can be found in Persia, where men added them to their footwear to prevent their feet slipping out of the stirrups while riding horseback. At the end of the 16th century the heel was embraced as a fashion accessory by European aristocrats, followed only later by the female part of their society.
Femininity vs effeminacy
For the following 140 years high-heeled shoes were worn by both men and women with the distinction that the male heel tended to be sturdy and squared, whereas women’s heels were more delicate and higher. Due to Enlightenment arguments in relation to the male supremacy of intellect, men finally abandoned the high heel around 1730. Women on the other hand, were supposed to have an inborn interest in fashion and adornment, which at the same time was seen as a proof of their lack of rationality. Since then, high heels have never been able to cast off their image of femininity. As a result, men wearing high heels today are mostly referred to as effeminate. Through the following centuries women who chose to wear high heels have had to deal with much prejudice. They were often considered silly and frivolous, or even vulgar and of dubious morals.
However, since the 1920s the image of high-heeled shoes slowly changed into something entirely different: the high heel has become the characteristic of the independent, self-assured woman! With a small relapse in the 1950s, when women for a while returned to their role of good housewives, the high heel eventually developed into an attribute without which no woman’s wardrobe is complete. Nowadays, wearing high heels is no longer synonymous with naivety. On the contrary: high-heeled women are the living proof that goals can be accomplished under complicated circumstances. No matter where a woman walks, she must always keep her balance!
Photo 1: William II and his bride Mary Stuart by Anthony van Dyck, 1641. Coll. Rijksmuseum.
Photo 2: Pin-up Ava Elderwood wearing Metamorphosis – Milenika shoes.
Photo 3: Groot-vizier Ibrahim Pasha te paard, attributed to Abraham de Bruyn, 1577. Coll. Rijksmuseum.