From cavemen to the catwalk

The history of high heels

Meredith Paslawsky
December 14, 2006

Trying on a pair of buttery soft stiletto Gucci boots can reduce even the most sane and poised woman to a giddy mess. There are few experiences in life that can rival the sheer pleasure and excitement women feel when shopping for shoes at Fendi or Prada in Italy. Glancing at the shelves of possibilities, their eyes light up and their hearts might flutter like the first time they fell in love.  

Owning closets of shoes may seem frivolous and superficial, but in reality, women are merely paying homage to the bricklayers of our modern civilization. Most people know that fashion trends are cyclical, peaking in popularity and then being discarded until they are introduced in another decade. But you might be surprised to learn that most shoe styles seen gliding down the runways in Milan and Paris have a long and fascinating history of several hundred or even thousand of years behind them. For shoes are one of the oldest inventions of our primitive an-cestors. They were first created with a piece of hide or plaited grass to protect feet from sharp rocks and rugged terrain. Shoes are also constantly referenced in the Bible, and depictions of high heels dating back to 4000 B.C. were found on the walls of Egyptian temples and tombs.

Shoes have played a practical role in humans’ lives for thousands of years. Yet one mystery re-mains—why would women voluntarily torture their feet with pointy-toed shoes or high heels, the most popular styles for dress shoes today?  Sometimes fashion simply trumps comfort, not un-like the medieval period in Europe, when luxury and extravagance were prized over practicality. During this time the Crackow, a shoe with a 5-inch pointed toe, was designed.  It was eventually prohibited by law because it was almost impossible to walk in.

Heels are a staple in the chic urban woman’s wardrobe, but this wasn’t always the case. In 1500, the men of European nobility began to wear heeled shoes in order to keep their feet in stirrups while riding horseback. Although there are some prior historical references to heels, at this time it became popularized for men of the courts; the term ‘well-heeled’ originated in this age, suggesting wealth and the means to afford costly shoes.

In 1533, with the wedding of Italian born Catherine de Medici, high heels became in vogue for women. Catherine insisted on having heels made for her in Florence, prior to her marriage to the Duke of Orleans. The 14-year-old vertically challenged bride then set the rage in Paris with her new ‘It’ shoe. (And just when you thought that Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci couldn’t be credited with another brilliant endeavor, he is rumored to be the inventor of high heels.)

While many women today take pride in the ease and speed with which they rush around in their 5-inch Manolos, it’s likely that 16th-century women of France, Spain, and Italy could have given them a run for their money. In the mid-1500s, chopines became popular, particularly in Venice. Chopines were an extremely tall shoe that reached heights of 24 inches. The higher the woman was in social status, the more restricted her movement was, forcing her rely on servant to carry canes or servants to help them. High heels stayed in style up until the late 18th century, when, during the midst of the French Revolution, showing any sign of opulence was considered in bad taste. Ironically, in 1793 Marie Antoinette ascended the scaffold to her execution wearing a pair of 2-inch heels.

High heels re-emerged in the late 19th  century as factories began to open in Italy and other parts of Europe. The US was not far behind, opening its first high heel factory in 1888. Women favored modest styles until the ‘Roaring 20s,’ when hemlines rose and elegant shoes show-cased bare legs. In 1954, Roger Vivier designed the first stiletto heel with its infamous bold arch for the house of Dior. Yet undoubtedly Italy is the country that has taken the fashion world by storm. Choosing Italy is easy for those fashionistas on the hunt for a pair that will turn a room of women green with envy is—as Italy is the global leader in luxury shoes, the first and last desti-nation. The only hard part is: Moschino or Miu Miu?

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