A Brief History of Heels

THE SHAPE OF FEMININITY

Article by FV Everleigh

The fetishist interviewed in this issue mentioned that he’s especially drawn to high heels because, to him, they embody femininity. This caught my attention because the development heels and their connection to women’s bodies seems to parallel the emergence of shoe fetishism.

Historically, heels – any sort of elevated shoe – has been associated with ceremony (ancient Egypt), practicality (Medieval era), and theater (ancient Rome). But from the Renaissance onward they were tied to class, for both genders. They’re impractical for labor, they wear out easily, they often hinder walking, so they were best suited for someone who wouldn’t need to break into a run or walk through the mud of unpaved streets. Heels are precious, delicate, decorative things. At at some point, they came to be tied to femininity.

Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, most walked barefoot, but figures on murals dating from 3500 B.C. depict an early version of heels worn mostly by the higher classes. These were most likely worn for ceremonial purposes.

Greece and Rome

In ancient Greece and Rome, sandals were commonly worn, but a platform sandal emerged called kothornos (or cothurnus). These were primarily worn by tragic actors and made of wood with cork platform soles. The height would vary in accordance with the importance of the actor’s role.

Medieval Period

During the Middle Ages, the patten emerged, a shoe with a raised wooden sole used to walk through mud and debris. In the 15th century, chopines emerged – over-shoes with an elevated platform sole – which fitted over the softer, more delicate footwear. Chopines were typically worn by women, but served the same function as the patten: it elevated the wearer above the mud, protecting not just her shoes but also the hem of her dress. The sole was constructed of both wood and cork, like the kothorni.

Venice (1400-1800)

The chopine really found traction in Venice. Called zoccoli, these ultra-elevated overshoes were undoubtedly practical in a city prone to floods from the rising tides (acqua alta), but they quickly became a sign of status as well. Noblewomen and courtesans wore these ultra-high platforms whenever they entered the streets. The higher the heel, the greater the status, and this was due to several reasons. The height alone was dramatic – it would have elevated these women above the bustling crowds in the narrow side streets – but it also required a much larger skirt to cover the stilt-like shoes. In Venice, there were strict sumptuary laws – laws that restricted conspicuous displays of luxury, including clothing, to give the appearance of equality – and a violation of these laws would result in a fine. So to wear these chopines, women needed reams and reams of expensive, luxurious silk added to their dresses, which would result in a violation of the law and and an inevitable fine. So this added height was not just a display of stature but also wealth, a display of stature, luxury, and the ability to pay any fines that might come their way. Unfortunately, it was virtually impossible to walk in these stilt-like shoes, so these women were forced to take tiny steps with the assistance of servants. So they were not just exceptionally tall, but also slow-moving.

Renaissance and Baroque

Elsewhere during the Renaissance, heels were gradually added to the conventional shoe to give women height. A very particularly woman, in fact: in 1533, a very short Catherine d’Medici, at age 14, wore a raised heel for her wedding to add an extra two inches. It was a strategic decision. The man she married was the Duke of Orleans, who would become the King of France, and young Catherine de’ Medici knew that she was in competition with the Duke’s mistress, the significantly taller Diane de Poitiers. She wore the heel to add height, presence, and competitive authority.

In England, Mary Tudor also began to wear high heels, and for the same reason – to add height and authority. And at that time, fashion spread from the courts. Soon, both men and women were wearing heels, and this added, often impractical height quickly came to be associated with courtly status, authority, and wealth.

18th Century

In fact, the implied status offered by added height had the potential to become threatening. During King Louis XIV’s reign, he decreed that nobody could wear heels higher than his own. And Louis XIV took his heels very seriously. They were often embroidered with intricate designs depicting battle scenes and other elaborate motifs. These silk-covered heels took on his name – ‘Louis heels’ – and could be as high as five inches. He also decreed that only nobility could wear heels colored red, making class and status easily identifiable.

With the developing tastes for the Rococo – a style of intricate, fine, delicate designs – heels became more ornamental in style, more slender and refined in shape. And perhaps it’s not surprising that shoe fetishism emerged as a distinctive sexual kink with the novelist Restif de Bretonne, hater of the Marquis de Sade, lover of fancy shoes, and inspiration for the term retifisme, or shoe fetishism.

Restif de Bretonne favored the high, slender heel and the finely arched foot, and his influence inspired women to tape their feet to refine their size. High heels quickly became a form of corsetry, binding the feet to a slender shape and, like the corset, came to be associated with femininity. If we identify any moment when the high heel took on its erotic, feminine associations, it’s now, firmly in the eighteenth century, before the French Revolution which not only overthrew the pre-existing government but also the shoes they wore.

The French Revolution sent a shockwave through popular fashion, as the delicate finery of the Rococo was rejected for the spare, clean lines of Neoclassicism. Napoleon helped this trend along by banning high heels in the spirit of equality.

The heel lowered significantly in the 1790s until it was reduced to the slimmest wedge or replaced with a spring heel, a single layer of leather placed in the sole at the back of the shoe. These shoes were often worn with ribbons that crossed and tied around the ankle, reminiscent of the classical Roman sandal. For the decades that followed, flat shoes reigned.

19th Century

By the 1860s, heels were revived as a fashion. The invention of the sewing machine allowed for a greater variety in styles as well as a reduction in their cost, making high heels accessible to consumer. The late nineteenth century also saw a resurgence of foot fetishism, or at least its documentation, as well as a desire to catalogue and assign value to the variety of women’s feet. A small foot with a high instep was considered elegant and aristocratic while broad flat feet, with little to no instep, was considered inelegant and lower in status. The heel was believed to emphasize the high arch and echo the gentle curves of a woman’s body. So with the revival of the heel there was also a revival of that eighteenth-century desire to constrict the feet in a delicate shoe and render them more feminine. Again, the shoe paralleled the corset as a form of body-architecture that defined and refined the feminine form.

And once again, heels were threatened. On one hand, they were believed to be beneficial to health by forcing the woman to walk with stiffer posture. And yet, there was an acute awareness of the heel’s erotic value. Just as they were believed to embody femininity, sometimes that femininity was considered threatening and would lead to ‘loose values.’

20th Century

Speaking broadly, there are three major moments in the history of the heel in the 20th century. The first was the invention of the pump – a simple slip-on heel with a low-cut front – which was invented in the UK and introduced to the US as a mass-produced shoe. Around 1955, the stiletto heel was introduced by Roger Viver in Italy, for Dior, and it quickly became the rage. The term derives from the narrow blades of knives, and the heel is distinctive by narrowing to a fine point. (Incidentally, this decade offers another spike in documented shoe fetishism.) The stiletto refined the silhouette of the high heel, added exaggerated height, and replaced the curvaceous Victorian shape, with an emphasis on the instep, with an eroticization of the sharp point. And then the 1970’s saw the widespread popularity of platform shoes, our era’s chopine, worn by both sexes.

Since then, we’ve seen every conceivable architectonic creature, but I’ll end with what seems to me like the ultimate reconception of the woman’s high heel: Antonio Berardi’s heel-less heel (2008). Thrusting the body’s entire weight into the toe of the shoe, the heel-less shoe makes the woman appear to be walking on her toes, drawing attention back to that shapely curve of her arch.

Fetishism

Like the hemline, the heel has risen and fallen, it’s been worn by both genders and tied to status, but it’s interesting to see that during periods when the high heel has been aligned with the feminine form, it has also been eroticized. Fetishism is typically the eroticization of an object or body part to such a degree that it takes precedence over the whole – the whole of the person, the whole of the body. And this fetish is understandable. When a shoe and the sculpted shape of the foot becomes an analogue for the female form as a whole, it’s primed to become an erotic extension of our bodies.

Perhaps that’s why heels have persisted in popularity. They add height, they lengthen our legs and tighten our calves, they straighten posture and reshape our stride, and ultimately that smooth curve from toe to heel repeats the line of our hips, our bust, our ass. It’s a feminine shape, an embodiment of the exaggerated feminine form.