Tag Archives: History

A Picture History of High Heeled Shoes

Everything in our world has a past. Literally everything. Machines, everyday objects, words and languages, feelings, people. Everything.

Hiding in plain sight everywhere are fascinating histories. Today, I’m going to tell you the story of these:

Louboutin shoes. Red sole, black uppers.

Louboutin Shoes
By Arroser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But, before we get to the shoes, we’ve got to start with something completely different.

a Belgian horse

MaleneThyssen [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5), via Wikimedia Commons

Huh. This is already headed in some unexpected directions. During Europe’s early adoption of horses as cavalry mounts, people sat on blankets, or right on the horse’s back. The stirrup hadn’t been introduced yet.

Like so:

Marcus Nonius Balbus sitting right on a horse. No stirrups. Or even a blanket.

Marcus Nonius Balbus sitting right on a horse. No stirrups. Or even a blanket. Take a good look.

If you want to shoot a bow from horseback, you need a strong, compact-sized bow (or one that you can swing over the horse’s neck), and a really steady seat on the horse. The stirrup was probably invented by horse-archery cultures in central Asia, and spread like wildfire. As it turns out, having a way to engage your feet in staying on an already panicky and high-strung large animal is a really good idea.

Everybody’s got stirrups.

Mongolian horse archery with stirrups.

Nobody does horse archery like Mongolia goes horse archery. Stirrups FTW. (Pretty much literally.)

But there’s another problem. If Marcus Nonius Balbus falls off his horse, he faceplants in the dirt. If you have stirrups, and nothing to stop your feet from slipping through, this could happen:

Painting of cavalry trooper dragged by a foot caught in the stirrup of his horse.

Giovanni Fattori: Lo Staffato, CA 1880
Dragged and trampled. Ouch.

So, stirrup-using cultures (that didn’t change the shape of the stirrups to a closed-toe design like Japan did) wore boots with heels to minimize the risk of being dragged and trampled to death by a panicking horse. That’s why cowboy boots have heels.

Black cowboy boots. Heels evident.

By Ealdgyth (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So far, then, we have heeled boots = cavalry. Did I mention that horses are really expensive? They’re expensive. They get weird, often fatal health problems for bizarre reasons. They eat a lot, and need lots of grassy pasture. You can’t really shear them for wool, and in Europe, people don’t drink horse milk. They’re pretty much only for transportation. Given how expensive horses are to maintain, horse troops were the elite branch of pre-modern militaries. Cavalry, Cavalier, Chivalry. Heeled boots = cavalry = high status. Eventually, European gentlemen (or any man who wanted to look like one) started wearing heeled boots and shoes and commissioning portraits of themselves in fancy riding gear purely as a statement of status.

Portrait of a man in fancy riding gear with boots.

Willem Heythuijsen by Frans Hals 1634 “I’m just gonna lean my chair back casually so you can appreciate how much I’m in the painting-commissioning horse-owning class.”

So, by this point in the late 1600’s through the 1700’s, men’s fashionable power-shoes had heels.

Women’s fashion had adopted heeled shoes too, as an edgy, fashion-forward touch. (I wanted portraits, so you could get a good look at context, but was too hard to get a good portrait of a woman with her feet visible in normal clothing at this point in history – I could only get a couple of ballet dancers in heeled shoes, and that’s not really a representative occupation. So here’s the shoes themselves.)

Men’s SERIOUS BUSINESS Power Boots:

Nice brocade-faced men's boots with ribbon trim.

Nice brocade-faced men’s boots with white silk ribbon trim.

Women’s fancy heeled shoes:

Women's fancy brocade shoes.

Women’s brocade shoes. French.

Even a century later, by 1800, Women still wore flats sometimes:

Women's slippers, 1800. You wouldn't look twice at these, if someone wore them today.

Women’s slippers, 1800. You wouldn’t look twice at these, if someone wore them today.

Even small children often wore heels:

Children's shoes, could be worn by girls or boys.

Children’s shoes, could be worn by girls or boys.

Men’s Boots for When You Want to Look Like a Greek Hero and Still Ride a Horse While Not Compromising Safety or Style:

Boots of white calf leather, with gilt leather on top, and heels, made to look like Ancient Greek sandals, while actually being riding boots.

I included these, because I love them so much. The sandal parts were probably covered in gold leaf, too. We have to get these back in style, guys.

But it was Louis XIV of France who took heeled shoes beyond fashion statement and into politics.

What you need to know: Louis XIV became king at an insanely young age, when his father died, and he was only four. What were you worrying about when you were four? Louis faced a massive power struggle between his mother, the Catholic church, and the nobility that eventually devolved into a civil war – the Fronde – that pitted the nobles against the crown. Although the rebellion was put down, and Louis XIV confirmed as King, clearly drastic steps had to be taken to control the aristocracy, reduce their riches, and sever them from their power bases in the provinces.

Louis XIV decided to solve this complicated political crisis by holding the nobility hostage to their own social-climbing at a purpose-built palace: Versailles. The previously powerful French aristocracy literally became victims of fashion. You could only get involved in politics (Promotions! Appointments! Bribery! Sweet Kickbacks!) if you got access to the King. You could only get access to the King by attending elaborate ceremonies when Louis XIV got up every morning, and by being there to hand him his undershirt, and maybe whisper suggestions to him. People fought fatal duels over these privileges. You could only get invited if you impressed the right people with insane, extravagant parties. The nobility quickly left their lands, and moved to Versailles, living in apartments on site and attending crazy entertainments and dances, and gambling enormous sums of money.

Louis XIV rewarded those who came to the court at Versailles with the right to wear red-heeled shoes. The right shoes became a status marker, dividing those who were politically in from those who were outcasts. To underline his uncontested power, Louis XIV also commissioned several ballets starring himself and lots of portraits showing off his legs. Legs were very important: until the advent of pants after about 1810, a man had to have good strong calves (which look better in white stockings and heeled shoes). If you were worried that your calves were too weak, you could get calf pads to beef them up a bit.

Louis XIV as Apollo. Ballet costume.

Whether in costume as Apollo

Louis XIV showing off his legs in red stockings.

Or in red stockings

Louis XIV showing off his legs in white stockings.

Louis XIV had great legs, and won’t let you forget it.

Louis XIV portrait, with an ermine lined cloak and red heeled shoes.

Everything about this portrait is about projecting power and wealth. Massive ermine-lined cape. Silk stockings (the better to show off his perfect legs) with diamond-encrusted garter buckles. RED HEELED SHOES.

Anyway. That’s how high heeled shoes became a fashion statement, and why Louboutin shoes have red soles – subconsciously we read it as: the shoes of a rich and fashionable person. Eventually, men started to wear pants after about 1800, and since there were no stockings to show off nice legs, men’s truly high heeled shoes went extinct except for actual riding gear. Women continued to wear heels, though, especially once hemlines rose high enough to show off stockinged legs. These boots were made for walkin’ indeed: go-go boots basically require miniskirts.

For extra bonus points:

Louis XIV on a horse as a quote of a Roman equestrian statue.

Louis XIV on a horse, based on a Roman equestrian statue. Note the lack of stirrups and heels. This gives an idea of the relationship of heels to horse riding, as well as just how much of these portraits are put together out of the artists’ imagination and bank of visual references, rather than painted from life. This is the seventeenth century equivalent of Photoshop. If Louis XIV really did ride a horse in costume, for safety’s sake it would be with stirrups and heeled sandal-imitating boots, like the example earlier. I love it when sources back each other up so neatly.

For even more, here’s General George S. Patton!

General Patton and his dog, Willie. Also note the famous riding boots.

An adorable photograph of General Patton and his dog, Willie. Also note the famous riding boots. This is one modern case in which the footwear becomes part of the identity of the person. Clothes are all about communication, as much as protection from the elements.