Borrowed From the Boys: An Unexpected History of High Heels

Whether you wear them or not, you know what they represent nowadays, but was it always so? Through the history of high heels you'll find various meanings and uses they had at different times.

While borrowing fashion trends from menswear is certainly nothing new, you may be surprised to learn that one of the most symbolic icons of feminine fashion actually originated with the boys!

The high heeled shoe has become the definitive icon of female fashion. Love them or hate them, we women have been stuffing our feet into all manner of high heels for so long that it has become a bit of a foregone conclusion that the origins of this iconic shoe would be anything other than feminine.

However, if you’re anything like me, you may have always suspected that no woman would have ever invented something that is so potentially punishing to the feet. As it turns out, you would be right. The high heel was actually something that women originally appropriated from their male counterparts. Read on for more interesting facts about the history of high heels.

High heels originate in the 16th century


According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, who curates the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (there’s a shoe museum!? How did I not know this!?), our knowledge of high heels can be traced at least as far back as the 16th century, where it was the standard shoe of the Persian cavalry. The men of the cavalry wore high heeled shoes to better stabilize themselves in the saddle while they were shooting their bow and arrows.


In time, this Persian influence spread to the European courts. Many European aristocrats were interested in these high heeled shoes because they thought that it lent their appearances a more masculine quality, like the Persian warriors before them.

High heels as a status symbol

When aristocratic European men adopted the high heel, they extended the reach of their affinity for the shoe to include a love of anything impractical. Aristocratic Europeans were certainly not charging into battle astride a trusty steed (or at least most of them weren’t), so they had to exert their status in other ways.

As Semmelhack stated in a 2013 interview with the BBC, “one of the best ways that status was conveyed was through impracticality. They weren’t in the fields working and they never had to walk far.”

Crossing over into the female fashion


It was at about this time that the high heel appears to have begun it’s crossover of allegiance from being purely a male fashion statement to one that was worn by both sexes.

Fashion was a medium through which women of the time felt they could level the playing field a bit when it came to social power, and they did so by appropriating many fashion items that up to that point, had been considered strictly menswear. Women began to wear high heels and men’s hats; they smoked pipes, and cut their hair as a means of exerting their feminine power.

As status lost its distinctive line, so have high heels disappeared

As the years passed and society drifted away from an emphasis of birthright and social class, a new interest in education bought on the age of Enlightenment. During this time, cultural emphasis focused more on the practical instead of showcasing one’s privilege, and this took a very distinct toll on men’s fashions.

The class lines blurred, and suddenly men began dressing more simply and practically in line with the lives they were living, focusing less on showcasing their privileged status. As a result, men started to shun high heels in favor of lower, less impractical attire.

Interestingly, during this time, there was less change in the way women dressed, and for the first time, a stark contrast between the way that men and women put themselves together began to surface. Semmelhack puts this down to the fact that women were left out of the educational revolution that so defined the times. In fact, women were seen as “emotional, sentimental, and uneducatable.”

Even though high heels had pretty much vanished from the men’s fashion scene by the time the French Revolution rolled-around, this pivotal moment in history also marked the end of the high heel on the feet of women as well.

Once a badge of honor of the aristocratic classes, this symbol of impracticality and idleness was chased out of town, banished forever – along with many of its most famous wearers (au revoir Mme. Antionette.

High heels made a comeback as a sexuality symbol

It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that high heels began to return on the popular culture scene. This time however, instead of being used as a medium with which to exert one’s status, they were used to exert one’s sexuality.

According to Semmelhack, some of the earliest images of 19th century women wearing high heels were the images of the French nudes on postcards that were sent from overseas; the pornography of the day. The age of the photograph was upon us, and these images ushered-in a new era of the high heel as a symbol of feminine sexiness that stays with us to this day.

Heels and prestige reunite

Women may have originally borrowed their high heels from the boys, but culturally, heels have pretty much remained a feminine symbol. However, the lines between fashion, culture, and gender continue to be blurred. Just because we’ve ushered in a new age in footwear doesn’t mean that the high heel is no longer used to convey status.

Christian Louboutain, one of the most famous women’s shoe designers currently living (whose creations sell for hundreds, if not thousands the world over), paints the soles of his footwear a bright, lacquered, candy apple red. This red sole is an homage; a red sole was used back in the day of the French aristocracy to denote who was in favour with King Louis XIV.

Just like today’s much in-demand Louboutains, the red soles of the French aristocracy were highly coveted, and spurred a rash of counterfeit red soled shoes.


Men have also begun to wear heels again in modern times, although in a much more modified manner than in the days of Louis XIV. Cowboy boots, Cuban heels, and motorcycle boots all generally sport a shorter, stacked heel that we associate with masculinity. In a way, this modern adaptation of the high heel is a lot closer to the origins of the male high heel than we’ve been in a long time. A gal can’t help but wonder what’s next.

About the author

Kristin Buchholz-MacKillop

Kristin is an American writer based in the Scottish Highlands. She is a saxophonist, an obsessive tennis player, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, and holds a Master's degree as an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner. She is the author of the online style blog

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