High hells: from the Egyptians to the present day

I don’t know who invented high heels, but all women owe him a lot.’ Marilyn Monroe

High heels make you stylish, they add that sexy sway to your walk and, above all, they make you look slender and elegant. Petite women are those who are particularly grateful for this invention: to mention one, Princess Letizia Ortiz of Spain is always seen equipped with a pair of stilettos to help her catch – even if still from far below – her husband’s eye, who on the contrary has the physique of a basketball player. Not all women love high heels: some have a genetic impediment to wearing any kind of footwear with a heel higher than a couple of inches. They continuously run the risk of toppling over or wobbling at every step, as if suffering the effects of a hangover, an attitude that definitely doesn’t do their fitted couture dresses any justice. There is also a category of penitent ‘mature’ ladies, who after having worn high heels all their lives, even as slippers at home, aim at terrorising the younger generations, showing off their swollen and bruised extremities and accusing high heels of being the cause. Some of these allegations may be true, but they’re definitely not enough to intimidate those who have a deep and insatiable passion for such kind of footwear and would never ever choose a pair of heels lower than 6 inches, wearing them with a constant smile, even at the end of a whole day spent on their feet.

A careful observer will however notice the unusual positions these ladies assume, and how they imitate flamingos in periodically rotating their lower extremities. Thankfully feet are not subject to sudden weight fluctuations! As uncomfortable as they might be, doing without heels is difficult, especially as they are virtually essential with certain kinds of outfits. How would bell bottom trousers or a pencil skirt look with flat shoes? An absolute no-nocombination! Unless Mother Nature has given you the body of Elle Macpherson and the stature of a grenadier. All women wear heels or at least nearly all of them possess more than one pair, even if only in their wardrobes. Some ladies, the Imelda Marcos kind, exaggerate and turn into serial high heels shoe collectors and can become maniacs with a wardrobe filled exclusively with red soled shoes, aka Louboutin. Very few however are aware of the remarkable history and of the many anecdotes behind this item of footwear.

High hells: the history

The earliest traces are found in Egypt, where depictions show men and women wearing heels, probably for ceremonial purposes, as well as butchers wearing them to avoid walking through the blood of dead animals. In ancient Rome in around 200 a.d., actors introduced shoes with very high wood soles called kothorni to indicate the degree of importance of a character. In the 1400s, the Turks created the first kind of platform shoe, chopines, which became popular throughout Europe until the middle of the 17th century. These ‘pseudo-platforms’ were outrageously high, more suited to circus balancing acts than to young ladies: they were in fact so high that women required support to walk. Venetian damsels were famous amongst visitors to the city for wearing outrageously high stilt-like chopines to openly display their aristocratic social standing. Historians attribute the formal invention of high heels to the Italic and rather short-statured Catherine de Medici, who, engaged to the Duke of Orleans, had a special pair of heels made for her wedding day in 1533. According to the gossip of the time, more than to please her husband, Catherine’s aim was to compete with the Duke’s favorite – and significantly taller – mistress Diane de Poitiers. Female business that soon became wildly successful. Catherine had unwittingly launched a new and very popular trend amongst noble women of the time and, as high heels became quickly associated with power and privilege, by the end of the century men were also wearing them.

In 1700, Louis XIV of France, le Roi-Soleil, decreed that only nobility could wear high heels – although no one’s heels could be higher than his own (decorated with miniature battle scenes and called ‘Louis heels’, the width of the heel becoming increasingly narrower at the bottom)– and he ordered that they should be colored red to be clearly recognised. Does this bring anyone to mind?After the French Revolution, Napoleon banned the wearing of heels to avoid any kind of class distinction. They became popular again in the mid-1800s, also thanks to the invention of the sewing machine and the opening of the first shoe factory in the US in 1888. Periods of ups and downs followed and the historical and economic situation between the two World Wars had an obvious influence on shoes. It was the glamour of Hollywood, though, that gave heels a new boost. During this time a young Italian, destined to become a real icon in his field, appeared on the scene. This was Salvatore Ferragamo, the shoemaker of the Hollywood divas. In 1938, he invented the first ever patent for cork platform shoes. Hundreds of other patents followed, including his famous ‘Cage Heel’ and more than 20,000 models of footwear. Hats off to him! For the invention of the stiletto we have to thank the explosive collaboration between Christian Dior and Roger Vivier. A revolutionary design with a narrowing of the toe and an exaggeratedly slender heel, resembling the point of a blade, which was first mentioned in the Daily Telegraph on 10 September 1953. The rest is history.

Be first to comment