Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.
Why do women wear high heels? Because men did.
Men were the first sex to don the shoe. They were adopted by the European aristocracy of the 1600s as a signal of status. The logic was: only someone who didn’t have to work could possibly go around in such impractical footwear. (Interestingly, this was the same logic that encouraged footbinding in China.)
Women started wearing heels as a way of trying to appropriate masculine power. In the BBC article on the topic, Elizabeth Semmelhack, who curates a shoe museum, explains:
In the 1630s you had women cutting their hair, adding epaulettes to their outfits…
They would smoke pipes, they would wear hats that were very masculine. And this is why women adopted the heel — it was in an effort to masculinise their outfits.
The lower classes also began to wear high heels, as fashions typically filter down from elite.
How did the elite respond to imitation from “lesser” people: women and workers? First, the heels worn by the elite became increasingly high in order to maintain upper class distinction. And, second, heels were differentiated into two types: fat and skinny. Fat heels were for men, skinny for women.
This is a beautiful illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction. Bourdieu argued that aesthetic choices function as markers of class difference. Accordingly, the elite will take action to present themselves differently than non-elites, choosing different clothing, food, decor, etc. Expensive prices help keep certain things the province of elites, allowing them to signify their power; but imitation is inevitable. Once something no longer effectively differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it. This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the distinction).
Eventually men quit wearing heels because their association with women tainted their power as a status symbol for men. (This, by the way, is exactly what happened with cheerleading, originally exclusively for men). With the Enlightenment, which emphasized rationality (i.e., practical footwear), everyone quit wearing high heels.
What brought heels back for women? Pornography. Mid-nineteenth century pornographers began posing female nudes in high heels, and the rest is history.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
SQ — February 5, 2013
"What brought heels back for women? Pornography. Mid-19th century pornographers began posing female nudes in high heels, and the rest is history."
Phil Gonzales — February 5, 2013
I had learned in costuming that heels were developed as a way of showcasing a man's calves - the heels lengthened the calf and made it stand out more - in conjunction with tights. Am I on track here or no or . . .
superantifascist — February 5, 2013
I don't recall Bourdieu suggesting the upper class will change their taste in response to imitation by the lower classes. The point I do remember him making is that the upper class will scoff at the lower class for their failure to truly appreciate the objects that they do appropriate. In any case, I would like to see citations for almost everything in this piece.
Martino — February 5, 2013
You know, it says right in the BBC link you provided that there was originally a practical and non-sociological reason for high heels...
Carlo — February 5, 2013
Can we talk about the title here for a minute? Manly to sexy? So manly is not sexy and sexy is not manly? False Dichotomy? One could argue that a man in the heeled shoe in context was sexier for wearing the shoe.....
mimimur — February 6, 2013
Why did they start using them in pornography? Was it a foot fetisch thing?
Jessica Serkin — February 6, 2013
The title doesn't mean manly isn't sexy. It means the high heal went from manly to female sex symbol.
Village Idiot — February 6, 2013
So if they fell out of fashion for everyone in Western culture thanks to the Enlightenment but they are now relatively common again, does that mean we're in the Dark Ages v2.0? I've always suspected as much...
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Sujay Kentlyn — June 5, 2013
What about the chopines of 16th century Venetian courtesans? Is it a qualitatively different phenomenon because they were 'platforms' rather than 'heels'? So increased height without enhancing the calf?
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Agata Chmielecka — May 19, 2014
The first thing if you want to work for an escort service you are informed about is, that the man prefer heels by the women. knowing that, it´s hard to think about the heels as about the element of power only.
Rachel Empress — June 1, 2014
Looks like another heated debate over women's rights..
Rachel from ilovetester.com
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Brigita — February 17, 2015
I thought about the same thing, but my guess is that the intention to wear them wasn't to make men look sexy, but that doesn't mean they weren't. wholesale fashion shoes
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adrianvance — June 5, 2015
Fashion is often weird, but this is one story that seems to have some very basic driving forces.
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Catherine de Medici wore heels at her wedding in Florence in 1533, predating the men mentioned here.
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To bring in a bit more perspective, by the 1800's the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, which meant that the men were working long hours in the factories and their spouse were left with seeing that the family responsibilities were properly dealt with. This also opened more marketing focus towards women, being as they had to be in charge of the income disbursements. After a day at the factory, it became a customary activity for many men to stop off at their local tavern to unwind before going home. Taking advantage of this type of scheduling and the lustful nature of the male drive, the sex industry was able to gain access with a lot of these men to partake of their services, such as prostitution and pornography. As the public, especially their spouses, became aware of these extra activities, the cries against this where heard through out the community. Wives wondered why they seem to be ineffective at meeting their spouse's sex drives to the point the spouse found satisfaction elsewhere. The attitude of "what did they have that I haven't got", started to weigh into this equation. This got the wives to look at what allured their husband to partake into these erotic notions. The most glaring items were the type of clothes and the wearing of high heels, because there was hardly anything else. From this situation, wives were intrigued to purchase the same type of outfits for their wardrobe to counter the sex industry's allure. The fashion scene also began to accommodate this interest and the sexy look took over the ideal objective in women's wear. Obviously, this is an over-simplification of all that lead to the outcome of women becoming the socially accepted high heel wearers. The point that has been lost, or should I say completely avoided here, is the desire men also have for wearing high heels, like these:
Curious to Know Who We Have to Thank for High Heels | The Ananasa Blog — March 27, 2016
[…] Curious to Know Who We Have to Thank for High Heels...A story that takes us through cultures and traditions, unveiling genders and their power struggle throughout history. We can almost be sure that after reading this story, the next time you come home with sore feet from your favourite pair of high heels, you will think of this story! […]
Quick Fact: Men were the first to wear high heels around the... - Quick Facts — May 13, 2016
[…] Men were the first to wear high heels around the 1600s. Women began wearing them to look more masculine.. Ref: thesocietypages.org/socimages/2013/02/05/from-manly-to-sexy-the-history-of-the-high-heel/ […]
Rosanna Miller — June 6, 2016
I am still not convinced of this nonsense. Just because someone named Semmelhack claimed it to be true, doesn't make it true.
The photo does not show him wearing high heels. To me, it looks like a man who is wearing something that existed way before high heels came on the scene, platforms. Platforms have a raised heel aka platform area but they lack the delicate features of high heels.
They are close in look but there are distinct features which made it necessary to categorize them differently. For one thing, platforms have a flatter and wider heel compared to the platform area of the high heel, which tends to be higher and pointier.
In this generation, it does not surprise me that believe these stories because people are confused about the simplest things, like ones gender and sex.
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Dina — November 5, 2019
Fashion is often weird, but this is one story that seems to have some very basic driving forces. Funny but clothes looks like them from online wholesale second hand clothes in europe
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