High Heels: From Horsemen to Marilyn

August 23, 2016
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By Rhys Tarling
Art by Kaysie Hilton

Fun fact: high heels were originally worn by men and were for utilitarian purposes rather than the fashion conscious. Another fun fact: The history of high heels is fascinating in that it’s consistently, even if tangentially, connected to sex and violence.

Consider what at one time was the mightiest mounted military force in the world, the ancient Persian riders circa the 9th century. The key to their mightiness? Heels. Heels were perfect for securing themselves in their stirrups and were necessary for good horsemanship. Good horsemanship was essential for the riders to successfully perforate their enemies with a well-aimed crossbow bolt.

Heels were intended to be a functional object until the 16th century, where an interest in Persian culture swept Western Europe. The upper class were particularly fond of the high heels’ aesthetic – they were masculine, gorgeous, and so impractical for walking on stone cobbled streets that, naturally, they would be perfect for projecting privilege.

King Louis XIV, the ruler of France from 1643 to 1715, adopted and popularised the red high heel amongst the aristocracy.

The red heels, the little King declared, were a mark of those in royal favour. Being red-heeled was like being granted the highest of honours – a seat at the cool kids table. By this time high heels were no longer gendered and were considered to be a fine choice of shoe for men and women – wealthy men and women.

The red symbolised blood, the willingness of the wearers to crush enemies of the State beneath their heels. Appearances were important. It wouldn’t do for the masses to think that the aristocratic red-heeled were a collection of well-dressed though ineffectual weaklings (also, it can be concluded that subtlety as a concept was decidedly not in fashion).

Louis XIV’s personal heels were even more outlandish than anybody else’s; he ordered them to be decorated with scenes depicting great battles. Were those heels a precursor to those 2009 Converse Chuck Taylors emblazoned with a choice selection of Kurt Cobain lyrics in order to demonstrate how little of a shit the wearer gives about polite society? Maybe.

This isn’t to say that high heels were a universally adored object across all of Western Europe, however. The English Parliament in the 17th century adopted a dim view of women wearing high heels.

If women were wearing high heels it was concluded that they must be plotting to entice men into marriage, and so they were tried as witches and presumably burned to death. The accusers – perhaps in the event that a sane person demanded the missing link between witch and footwear – noted that the shape of the high heel bared a remarkable resemblance to the cloven hoof of the devil (and this was during the so called Age of Enlightenment, so figure that one out).

Fast forward a few centuries later to 1953, where the world witnessed the debut of the most popular high heel of all time – the stiletto. These beautifully timeless shoes debuted at a Christian Dior fashion show and were invented by French fashion designer Roger Henri Vivier.

Stilettos, named after the Italian word for slim dagger – specifically a slim dagger that in medieval times was used to quickly kill a defeated knight – were an immediately fetishised object.  They were prominently worn by Hollywood movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe who adorned pin-up posters, pornography’s younger and adorably sunnier sibling.

There’s a science to their sexual allure. Renowned sex anthropologist Helen Fisher pointed out that “high heels thrust out the buttocks and arch the back into natural mammalian courting – actually copulatory – pose called ‘lordosis’ ”.

Ever since then, the stilettos have been trendy and not so trendy, but never really what you could call unfashionable.

Perhaps this is due to the stilettos representing the nexus point of the high heel, the zenith if you will, of embodying the perfect balance of the shoe’s history of things that will never be unfashionable: sex and violence.

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