The first time a woman put on high heels, she wasn’t trying to be uber feminine. Quite the opposite. In 17th century northern Europe, only men wore high heels, and so the first women to try them out were actually going for a masculine look.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada, uncovered the history of the high heel after she organized an exhibition around Chinese foot binding and realized that many visitors were fascinated by this unfamiliar practice, but incurious about how women came to wear high-heeled shoes. Semmelhack traced the heel to 10th century Persian men, soldiers who wore them while riding on horseback; heels helped them stay in their stirrups. Men in England and Holland would have become acquainted with this look by the mid-16th century, when they traded textiles in what by then had become the Iranian empire and would have encountered the empire’s large mountain military. By the 17th century, aristocrat European men were also wearing heels.
“There was a fashion trend at the time for some women, those willing to take sartorial risks, to borrow from the male wardrobe,” says Semmelhack. Some European women started to wear hats with large plumes, stomachers (decorative triangle panels on the front of women’s gowns) that looked like doublets and, around 1620, a few were even accused of carrying weapons in a bid to look more masculine. “It was seen as both fashionable and daring,” says Semmelhack—though, of course, they faced ridicule from some corners. “There’s been no time in history when women haven’t been criticized for what they wear and this is no exception,” she adds.
For a few years, though, both men and women wore high heels in Europe. But by the end of the 17th century, enlightenment ideas put an end to such androgynous styles. This philosophy emphasized rationality and practicality—but as distinctly male traits. Women, meanwhile, were seen as emotional, irrational, and distinct from men. Under the influence of enlightenment thinking, gender, rather than class, became the main way of dividing society.
“These are stunning ideas, that maybe the difference between people isn’t based on status at birth, but gender at birth: Maybe all men are untied despite what separates them economically, and separated from all women who are united regardless of economic standing,” says Semmelhack. “Men are portrayed as more rational, women are portrayed as less rational, and fashion becomes a way of expressing these differences.”
In particular, aristocratic men stopped wearing ornate clothing to signify their class, taking on a more monochrome look that was homogenous across economic classes. Practical, flat-footed shoots were in, and high heels were definitely out.
Some of the key ideas separating men from women were explicit in enlightenment philosophy; Semmelhack notes that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century Swiss-French enlightenment philosopher, wrote extensively on sentimentality in motherhood, and believed women’s principle focus should be on the family. This sort of sexism was further enforced by the public interpretation of enlightenment ideas. In sermons at the time, Semmelhack says, there were constant comments about the illogical frivolous nature of women.
High heels—less practical than flat-heeled shoes for anyone not on horseback—soon became associated with supposedly female traits of frivolity and irrationality. By the 19th century, in Europe, the heel was “unassailably feminine,” notes Semmelhack. Then European imperialism spread this idea around the world. “Once European men abandoned the heel in the early 18th century, the meaning becomes so hyper feminized that as imperialism goes global, those are the meanings that are brought with the high heel.”
But though high heels today have an unquestionably feminine association, Semmelhack says the meaning is far from intrinsic. “Heels are just things. They can be given any meaning we decide they have,” she says. So could men start wearing heels once more? “Anything’s possible.”