The Confusing, Paradoxical History of High Heels

High heels have long been a mysterious part of fashion. They’ve gone in and out of style at various times over the centuries, but the real intention behind their invention and popularity is shrouded by misinformation.

For instance, my 20-somethings will remember what She’s the Man taught us about the inherent oppression of high heels:

 

And, let’s be honest, the idea that high heels were popularized by men to make life harder for women is a tempting narrative—and a maybe, partially, slightly, semi-true one at that—but it’s definitely not that simple. The history of what has become one of the most “feminine” accessories isn’t so cut-and-dry… And it’s surprisingly masculine.

Sure, we’ve all heard the “heels were created by men, for men” tidbit (which is true-ish), but the real history of the high heel is more complicated than that. For an accessory that has been called “impractical” over and over again, the origin of heeled shoes was actually based in practicality—in antiquity, men added small heels to their boots to help them stay on their horses. The heels hooked on the stirrups and helped a rider stay in place.

Over the years, heels of different shapes and sizes were adopted into (or thrown out of) the fashion of the day for various reasons. For a time they were indicative of power and privilege—much like pale skin indicated that the European elites didn’t need to work in the sun, heels indicated that they didn’t need to be able to walk. After that, they became too associated with elite society and fell out of fashion (think French Revolution). For a time they were worn by prostitutes. Finally, heels as we know them—inherently erotic and reserved  for “femininity”—came into vogue in the Victorian Era when pornographic photographers began to use them to enhance the figures of their subjects and, despite their varied history, that’s the function they have settled into.

 

 

In the above video, the incomparable Dorian Electra lays out the loaded cultural history of heels, but the question of whether we should view heels as empowering or oppressive remains. It’s up for debate and will likely always be. As with most gendered expectations, the place of heels (and mini-skirts and ear-piercing and low-cut tops, etc.) is complicated by our historical relationships to them. The feminist rallying cry—”how I dress is not for you”—is real for many women (myself included), but what makes us feel good about ourselves is inextricably linked to the cultural values placed on the items in question over time and that’s something that we must confront and consider.

 

 

As Rachel Bloom lays out in “Put Yourself First,” the entire idea of taking back a fashion choice as “empowering” or condemning it for being “oppressive” is a paradox. The impossibility of the issue—the confounding nature of the question—speaks to the incredible power of cultural weight on personal choices, no matter what you decide. The ultimate “power” or “oppression” of heels or any other “feminine” fashion statement lies with the wearer. If you feel empowered by heels, wear them. Flaunt them. Love them. If you don’t really like them for whatever reason, then don’t wear them. But at the end of the day it’s up to each of us to make that choice and let others do the same.