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The long history of heels: from a symbol of men’s power to women’s burden

An upcoming exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum reveals how shoemakers have created footwear that is poorly designed for movement—on purpose.

The long history of heels: from a symbol of men’s power to women’s burden
[Photos: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

When I brought my newborn home from the hospital, I picked out a special outfit for her, including tiny leather moccasins. My husband thought the shoes were a little silly, given that she wouldn’t be able to walk for a year. But that was beside the point: Most shoes that carry us through life aren’t designed for walking at all.

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An upcoming exhibition at The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, located on the New York City campus of the Fashion Institute of Technology, makes my point. Called Shoes: Anatomy, Identity, Magic, the exhibit reveals that our relationship with footwear goes well beyond the physical, performing social and psychological functions as well. The exhibition features more than 300 pairs of shoes, boots, and sneakers from the MFIT permanent collection and spans nearly 500 years of fashion history. But heels, in particular, stand out as a shoe that’s poorly designed for movement, but very important to social acceptance. And the exhibit reveals how, for the first time in history, we’re rejecting the heel as a symbol of gender or class.

[Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

This Boot Was Not Made For Walking

In some ways, the basic format of the shoe hasn’t changed much throughout human history. The oldest known leather shoe, a moccasin found in Armenia that’s 5,500 years old, was made from a single piece of tanned cowhide, with laces along the seams in the front and back. Archaeologists say the shoe was designed to help people walk long distances over rugged terrain, protecting the foot from the cold, as well as from stones and prickly bushes. “It is astonishing how much this shoe resembles a modern shoe!” Manolo Blahnik, the luxury shoe designer, remarked to National Geographicwhen the shoe was first discovered in 2010.

But there’s one big difference between ancient shoes and those designed over the last millennia, points out the museum’s director Valerie Steele, cocurator of the exhibition. Over time, shoemakers have prioritized fashion over function, which means they stopped designing the shoes to be comfortable or to facilitate walking. And this has, in turn, changed how humans stand and move, as well as how mobile they are.

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The most obvious example of this is high heels, which generally make it harder, not easier, to walk. Heels were first invented in Persia in the 10th century, and they were originally designed for men. “Wealthy men wore them to give them additional height, and when they rode on horseback, the heels clicked into the stirrups,” says Steele. “But when Persian royalty traveled to the French courts in the 17th century, they brought the trend with them, and soon heels were widespread among men in European courts.”

Man’s dark brown shoes with red painted heels, 1640-1670, Europe; unknown donor [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]
Consider the oldest piece in the collection, a man’s shoe from 1640s Europe. It features a red painted heel and cutouts that expose the top of the foot. The shoe was likely made for a courtier, allowing him to feel taller and more powerful, and to signal his social standing. And indeed, heels have always been a status symbol, Steele says, because they reflect that the wearer doesn’t need to perform hard labor or walk where they need to go.

Steele says that wealthy women in the courts began wearing heeled shoes to achieve some of the social benefits they accrued. However, women’s shoes had taller, thinner heels than those of their male counterparts. Steele says this is likely because people thought they made women’s feet and bodies look more feminine. The heels changed a woman’s silhouette, which some men found alluring, so they became associated with women’s sexuality. “Women’s bodies have always been sexualized, and heels began to be associated with female eroticism,” she says. “This is when men abandoned the heel for more practical flat boots, but women continued to wear them.”

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Jack Jacobus, Ltd. black leather boots with red silk lining, 1895-1900, Austria. Gift of the Victoria and Albert Museumm [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]
By the 1800s, women of all social classes wore heels. Steele says that it’s a myth that heels and corsets were only worn by women of the upper classes; even those who were poor, working in fields or as housemaids, felt pressure to wear heels to show that they were women, too. And yet the heels were often an impediment, making it harder for them to move comfortably. One high-heeled boot from 1895 perfectly illustrates this. It’s made by the British shoemaker Jack Jacobus, in its Austrian factory, and features a pointed toe and skinny heel, that look quite elegant if not particularly comfortable.

Gucci red patent leather and silver metal stiletto-heeled pumps, spring 1998, Italy. Gift of Gucci. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]

The Persistence of The Heel

In many ways, it’s strange that women’s heels have persisted into the 21st century, given how uncomfortable they are. But as the exhibition demonstrates, heels have dominated women’s fashion over the last century. Some of the most famous shoe designers of our time—Roger Vivier, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Louis Vuitton, and Alexander McQueen—all specialize in very high heels. One recently acquired pair by Maison Martin Margiela are eight inches tall. Another, from Christian Louboutin, combines an extremely high heel with a ballerina pointe upper, making it almost impossible to walk in.

Christian Louboutin, black patent leather “Fetish Ballerine” pumps, 2014, France. Gift of Christian Louboutin. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]
While these are examples of high fashion, heeled shoes were also ubiquitous in everyday shoes in the 20th century. And while doctors have pointed out that heels are not just uncomfortable, but can even permanently damage the foot, many women felt pressure to wear them to work and to events, much like women did in the 18th and 19th centuries. As recently as 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers mandated that women wear heels to work, prompting one employee to petition the British government to make it illegal to include heels in a dress code.

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John Lobb, man’s brown leather Oxfords, 1965-1975, England. Gift of Margaret Kaplan. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]
Meanwhile, men’s shoes become increasingly more comfortable. In the 19th century, the Oxford, which features a leather upper that can be laced and a sole that provides support, became popular and still remains the standard for men’s formal footwear. And in the 20th century, men started wearing sports shoes out of tennis and basketball courts and into everyday life—and even with formal wear. Sneakers, which are designed to optimize movement and comfort, are now the most common men’s shoes around the world. 

Balenciaga, multicolor leather, suede and mesh “Triple S” sneakers, 2018, France. Museum purchase. [Photo: courtesy The Museum at FIT]
Over the past few decades, in a radical departure from previous centuries, men’s and women’s footwear styles have been dovetailing. This is part of a broader change in the years after World War II, of women wearing trousers, suits, jeans, and other garments traditionally associated with men. And while there are places where women sometimes still feel the need to wear heels, like formal offices and black-tie events, most choose not to wear them everyday.

Comfort and ergonomics are now the key considerations when it comes to shoes, which is why sneakers are now the most popular shoe on the market for both genders, and Nike is the most valuable company in the world. Many of the most popular shoe startups in recent years—like Allbirds and Birdies—have focused on designing shoes that support the foot and the body. And many designers now create high-end versions of sneakers that are both wearable and fashion forward, including Balenciaga and Yeezy. “You see women wearing sneakers on the red carpet now,” Steele says. “For decades, heels were the only option.”

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But the symbolic power of the heel hasn’t disappeared. Designers continue to create elaborate, fantastical high heels, and consumers continue to snap them up. Steele says that there’s a mythology in Western culture about the magical power of shoes, like Cinderella’s glass slipper, which still today tends to manifest itself in high heels. “There’s this idea that the right pair of fabulous high heels will transform your life,” Steele says. “They will get you a job or help you find a partner. The difference is that wearing high heels is now a choice, not a social obligation.”

The exhibit will be open between September 1 and December 31. It is free and open to the public.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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